Only three days after Judge Kaplan’s spectacular ruling in the Chevron/Ecuador case, notes Paul Barrett at Business Week, “a state appellate court in California upheld a trial judge’s finding that what had been billed as a watershed liability verdict against Dole Food over pesticide use in Nicaragua was actually the product of a corrupt conspiracy by plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
The case at issue in the March 7 ruling, known as Tellez, went to trial in 2008 and produced a multimillion-dollar verdict for workers. That verdict was thrown out when Dole’s attorneys proved that many of the plaintiffs never worked for the company and weren’t, in fact, sterile. Witnesses and investigators were intimidated in Nicaragua, and plaintiffs were coached to concoct false stories.
Barrett has related pieces here and here. He notes the string of high-profile plaintiff’s lawyers tripped up by unethical conduct — Dickie Scruggs, Bill Lerach, Mel Weiss, Stan Chesley — and observes that the jackpots obtained by the mass tort bar in the 1990s incentivized, when they were not themselves the result of, ethical problems that have taken years to play themselves out. I’ve been on these themes since (and before) my book The Rule of Lawyers, and began tracking the banana pesticide litigation five years ago.
Glenn Garvin at the Miami Herald has spotted a trend on the film festival circuit. Among the questions he raises: why was the New York Times so oddly unskeptical about the Chevron-bashing opus Crude? And why was such widespread credulity accorded to the showcasing of Jamie Leigh Jones’s lawsuit in Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee? More: Jim Dedman, Abnormal Use.
California Lawyer covers the Nicaraguan pesticide litigation fraud (via California Civil Justice). And Dole has dropped its never-should-have-been-filed lawsuit against a Swedish filmmaker that had promoted the plaintiffs’ case [AP, earlier] More: ShopFloor.
It’s in this morning’s paper; I call attention to a few highlights at Point of Law.
California Civil Justice Blog calls attention to some further details on that remarkable litigation claiming mass injury from pesticides which led presiding Judge Victoria Chaney to remark, “… if you took all the bad cases I’ve read and put them together, they don’t even come close to what’s happened here.” (earlier coverage: Mar. 30, Apr. 23, Apr. 27).
Nicaraguan lawmakers got the ball rolling with a legislated assumption that anyone who worked on a banana farm got poisoned. Nicaraguan judges, lawyers, and heavy-handed client “recruiters” rolled the ball into perhaps 10,000 class action plaintiffs. Some California lawyers took over and pitched it into an L.A. courtroom.
CCJB also catches lead attorney Juan Dominguez making what in retrospect might seem an incautious boast on his website: “I oversee the legal work by all lawyers [in the pesticide case] both here in the United States and in Central America.”
And attorneys were the brains of the operation, according to Judge Victoria Chaney (transcript, PDF, courtesy American Lawyer). Ben Hallman of American Lawyer calls it “the most egregious plaintiffs lawyer extortion and fraud allegations we’ve seen this side of criminal indictment”:
After several days of testimony on defense allegations of Dominguez’s misconduct [Los Angeles plaintiff's lawyer Juan Dominguez], Chaney tossed the tort cases before her. “I find that there is and was a pervasive conspiracy to defraud American and Nicaraguan courts, to defraud the defendants, to extort money from not just these defendants — but all manufacturers of DBCP and all growers or operators of plantations in Nicaragua between 1970 and 1980,” she said from the bench. Her ruling puts in doubt $2 billion in pending judgments Dominguez won in dozens of similar suits. Chaney also said she would refer the matter to state bar associations and to prosecutorial agencies. …
The court testimony that led to Chaney’s ruling detailed how a group of Nicaraguan lawyers, in apparent collusion with local officials, judges and lab technicians, rounded up 10,000 men whom they coached to claim sterility — and to blame that sterility on Dole’s chemicals.
When Dole attempted to investigate the claims, its representatives were harassed and some plaintiff’s lawyers even put out a bounty seeking the identity of witnesses. Chaney said that she did not suspect a Sacramento law firm that also represented the plaintiffs of being involved with the fraud. I’ve started a new tag to collect our coverage of the scandal.
Explosive testimony in a Los Angeles courtroom after a judge begins digging into indications of possible fraud in lawsuits by Nicaraguans against Dole Food alleging toxic harms from banana pesticides (L.A. Times via Cal Biz Lit, WSJ law blog; earlier at Overlawyered). The fraud went on for decades, a Dole lawyer charged, and included recruiting and coaching poor Nicaraguan men to pose as having been rendered sterile, even if they had children and had never worked on banana plantations. A California jury had awarded millions of dollars in one of a string of cases that drew controversy over the competence of stateside courts in evaluating claims over injuries that took place in foreign countries. According to the L.A. Times, one lawyer representing the plaintiff’s side in the litigation expressed regret over the actions of a co-counsel and said “all parties were in a nightmare situation.” Bloomberg:
Most of the employment records of Dole workers in Nicaragua were destroyed in the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution, opening the door to the fraudulent claims, Edelman said at the hearing.
Nicaraguan witnesses for Dole whose faces were hidden and whose voices were distorted to prevent identification, said in videotaped statements shown in court that they feared retribution if it became known they provided information to company investigators.
“They even would set fire to my house, even with my family in there,” one witness said. “These people don’t care.”
The cases of thousands more plaintiffs from poor banana-growing countries are waiting for trial in Los Angeles; Dow Chemical is also a defendant, because it manufactured the pesticide. [Update Apr. 24: judge tosses two consolidated lawsuits against Dole]
For another dramatic episode in which poor Latin American plaintiffs have surfaced in U.S. courts with hard-to-disprove claims, see the case of purportedly illegitimate Guatemalan children left fatherless by international air crashes (Nov. 29, 2000).