A California judge on Thursday dismissed two lawsuits by purported Nicaraguan banana plantation workers against U.S. food giant Dole and other companies on grounds of fraud and attempted extortion.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney ruled after hearing three days of testimony that detailed a scheme to recruit men who would claim they were rendered sterile by exposure to a pesticide in the 1970s.
Witnesses and investigators told of being in fear for their lives for exposing the fraud.
The judge denounced the lawyers who hatched the scheme and said there was a group of corrupt Nicaraguan judges "devouring bribes" to make judgments and aid the scheme.
The lawsuits ended up in the California court seeking enforcement of extravagant damages determined by Nicaraguan judges.
"What has occurred here is not just a fraud on the court, it is blatant extortion on the defendant," she said. "... The record is so outrageous and profound."
Dole attorney Scott Edelman said he was pleased with the outcome but sad to see "blatant fraud."
"This is what you expect to read in a novel, not something you expect to see in court," he said.
Chaney said that as a result of the scheme no one will ever know whether workers were actually injured by pesticides in Nicaragua.
"This fraud was so pervasive it has undermined our ability to know the truth," she said.
She noted she had heard evidence of attorneys suborning perjury, doctoring medical reports and training recruits plucked from an impoverished nation to make false claims in hope of reaping billions of dollars. All of it, she said, was facilitated by a government which passed a special law to penalize foreign companies.
"There is a lack of respect for law down there," she said.
She noted that among those who testified were men who denied their own children.
"Plaintiffs have disavowed their own children. How sick."
An attorney who represented a Los Angeles lawyer alleged to have been one of the moving forces in the fraud conspiracy made no final argument at the hearing and later said he had no comment.
The judge said she accepted as credible the testimony of those who outlined the scheme and rejected all documentation presented by the plaintiffs before the hearing began.
"This court questions the authenticity and reliability of any documents that come from Nicaragua," she said. "I can't believe in lab reports, work certificates, medical reports — what is there for me to believe? Nothing."
In 2007, Dole lost a Nicaraguan banana workers suit with the same claim in a trial before Chaney. There was an initial multimillion-dollar jury verdict that was later reduced to $1.58 million and is now on appeal.
In her ruling, the judge apologized to the jury in that case and said she thought there was "something wrong with the witnesses" but was unable to pinpoint it because claims of fraud had not yet been raised when that case was tried.
"What a tragedy," she said. "Sixteen jurors sat through 4 1/2 months of trial. Millions of dollars were expended in that case, a case that was built in somebody's imagination."
She said she did not know what could be done about that outcome.
The judge dismissed the two pending cases with prejudice so they could not be raised again.
She said she knew her ruling would have wide-ranging impact not only in the U.S. but overseas where other cases involving the pesticide DBCP are still pending.
Dole's lawyers say there are 10,000 such claims currently in Nicaragua and 6,000 in other countries worth billions of dollars.
He said the main Nicaraguan lawyer behind the lawsuits, Antonio Ordenana, brought charges against him for slander, forcing him to appear in court in Nicaragua, and summoned a mob to demand his expulsion from the country.
He said he was ordered to return to Nicaragua for trial and fears for his life.
Valadez's supervisor, Luis Madrigal of Costa Rica, testified he was forced to do investigative interviews in the dead of night to obtain information. He said he too has lived in fear and fliers distributed in Nicaragua showed his picture with instructions for anyone who saw him to beat or kill him.
Edelman said in his closing argument that the most shocking evidence — presented in a closed session Wednesday — was about a Nicaraguan judge who presided over a meeting of all the conspirators and gave instructions on how to doctor sperm tests to make them appear credible and to provide the evidence to get multimillion-dollar verdicts.
Judge Chaney said she would refer the case to the California Bar Association and to state prosecutors.
Source: AP News