Judge could toss Dole pesticide cases

LOS ANGELES Tue Apr 21, 2009 7:06am EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles judge could throw out two bellwether lawsuits accusing Dole Food Co of exposing Nicaraguan banana plantation workers to pesticides that made them sterile over allegations that plaintiffs lawyers committed a massive fraud on the court.

At the conclusion of a three-day hearing that starts on Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney is expected to determine whether the Nicaraguan and U.S. lawyers recruited people who had never worked on banana plantations to pose as sterile "bananeros" for the trials.

Plaintiffs attorneys accused Dole of bribing witnesses, but Chaney called those allegations "unsupported statements" in a March 11 order that asks attorneys on both sides to present evidence as to whether she should take the rare step of terminating the cases for fraud.

Plaintiffs attorney Juan Dominguez, whose personal injury law firm's advertisements are a fixture on Los Angeles buses, could not be reached for comment on the allegations.

A Dole attorney declined comment on the hearing.

Privately-owned Dole, is the world's largest producer of fruits and vegetables.

More than 40 related cases, involving thousands of plaintiffs from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras and the Ivory Coast are pending in Chaney's court.

A federal judge in Miami considering whether to enforce an $800 million judgment won by bananeros in a Nicaraguan court has suspended those proceedings pending the outcome of the California cases, a Dole attorney said.

In 2007, the banana workers won a $2.5 million judgment in the first of what Chaney considered to be three "bellwether cases" whose outcomes could facilitate settlement of the dozens of remaining cases, the judge wrote in the March 11 order.

After the first trial, Dole investigators found witnesses in Nicaragua who testified that many plaintiffs had never worked on banana farms and that the work certificates and lab reports supporting their claims were faked, the order said.

Dole lost records pertaining to its Nicaragua operations, including employment records, in the 1979 Sandanista revolution, the order showed.

The judge noted that most of the plaintiffs in each of the three lawsuits dropped out of the cases of their own accord shortly after being deposed or undergoing medical exams ordered by Dole "that revealed their claims were fraudulent."

A fraud investigation ordered by the court revealed that the plaintiffs lawyers used scripts, videos and "field trips" to educate plaintiffs about life and work on banana farms, the order said.

The investigation also found that lawyers had suppressed evidence of children born to the supposedly sterile plaintiffs, paid for falsified documents or testimony, and intimidated witnesses and Dole investigators via written threats and radio announcements in Nicaragua, according to the order.

Chaney suspended plans for a fraud trial on those allegations after learning about the threats and ordered the plaintiffs to show why she should not throw out the cases in the three-day hearing.

(Reporting by Gina Keating; editing by Carol Bishopric)

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