LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California judge on Thursday tossed out a $2.4 million judgment against Dole Food Co won by six Nicaraguans claiming pesticide injuries in what the judge branded a phony case invented as part of a larger fraud conspiracy.
The November 2007 verdict she overturned in a rare proceeding after several days of testimony and oral arguments capped the first of dozens of such cases brought in California by workers from several Central American countries to go to trial.
The others, from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Honduras, have been thrown into greater doubt as well.
Thursday’s decision, by the same judge who dismissed two related lawsuits in Los Angeles for the same reasons in April 2009, also undermines $2 billion in pending judgments from dozens of similar cases won by plaintiffs in Nicaraguan courts and now seeking enforcement against Dole in the United States, lawyers for both sides said.
A federal judge in Miami already has refused to enforce one such judgment for $97 million.
“It has effectively destroyed any Nicaraguan’s ability to seek compensation in (U.S.) court,” said Steve Condie, a lawyer for the six Nicaraguan plaintiffs who sued in California. He denied that his clients were part of a conspiracy and vowed to appeal the ruling.
His clients, like plaintiffs who sued and won in Nicaragua, claimed they were made sterile by the chemical DBCP, which was banned in the United States but used by Dole in other countries to control fungus growth on banana plantations.
Dole, one of the world’s leading producers of fruits and vegetables, asserted that attorneys in Nicaragua recruited thousands of men to pose as banana workers, or “bananeros,” in a wave of lawsuits that hit U.S. companies, including Dole and Dow Chemical Co, in recent years.
Dole’s lawyers said the conspiracy grew out of a special Nicaraguan law passed in 2001 to address pesticide exposure cases.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers have countered by accusing Dole of paying witnesses to testify on behalf of the company to help manufacture claims of judicial fraud.
In the end, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney sided with Dole, echoing her 2009 finding that the plaintiffs were part of a “pervasive conspiracy” to defraud American companies and the court system.
Dole attorney Scott Edelman said the dismissal of the three cases filed on behalf of Nicaraguan plaintiffs casts a cloud over similar lawsuits from other countries still pending in California.
“I think everybody’s going to be looking carefully in the future at all these types of cases ... to make sure that the claims are legitimate,” Edelman said. “This case is one of the most pervasive, reprehensible frauds on the courts that any of us has ever seen, and will be recognized as a textbook example of fraudulent litigation for years to come.”
He said it was rare for a judge to set aside a jury award in a civil case after the fact and “requires very compelling circumstances.”
Last month, Chaney, an appellate judge assigned to hear the Nicaraguan Dole cases at the Superior Court level, suggested in a hearing that lawyers in Nicaragua were fomenting hostility and veiled threats toward her and Dole’s witnesses in radio broadcasts and news conferences. She did not elaborate.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham