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).
Thomas Girardi, of Girardi & Keese, and Walter Lack, of Engstrom Lipscomb & Lack, are among California’s highest-profile plaintiff’s lawyers, often working closely together on litigation; perhaps their best-known case was the “Erin Brockovich” action against Pacific Gas & Electric, which I covered here and again here (highlight: the chartered Mediterranean cruise to which Girardi and Lack invited the three arbitrators soon after winning their split of $133 million in fees). Now both men are in a spot of bother with the Ninth Circuit, where a special master, senior circuit judge A. Wallace Tashima, has recommended hundreds of thousands of dollars in sanctions against them and where a three-judge panel (Kozinski, Reinhardt, Berzon) has just moved to appoint a special prosecutor to recommend further discipline in the case.
The imbroglio arose from a pesticide toxic tort which resulted in a Nicaraguan court’s $489 million judgment against defendants including Shell Oil, Dow Chemical and Dole Food, which plaintiffs had sought to enforce in this country. Amid mounting evidence that many of the various American and Nicaraguan lawyers involved had not been entirely (as they say) candid with the tribunal on a variety of points, the court has been trying to sort out who knew what when. “In his 65-page report, Tashima said Lack had a personal role in asserting repeatedly that a writ of execution made by the Nicaraguan judge to enforce the judgment in America was corrected to name Dole Food Co. and Shell Chemical Co. Girardi, meanwhile, allegedly allowed the misstatements to continue on his behalf without becoming directly involved.” (Evan Hill, “9th Circuit Taps Special Prosecutor for Toxic-Tort Case”, The Recorder, Jun. 10; latest order and March special master’s report from Judge Tashima, both PDF, via California Appellate Report). We understand that changes to California ethics rules have put a crimp in Girardi and Lack’s former practice of throwing luxurious events for judges, but even aside from that, we don’t think judges Tashima, Kozinski, Reinhardt and Berzon would probably have been making any plans to attend.
Bizarro-Overlawyered hasn’t quite gotten the hang of how to put forward their propaganda campaign to deprive consumers of the choice of arbitrating disputes.
A New Orleans woman, Patricia Dicorte, says she got ripped off by her contractor in May 2007, so she took him to an arbitrator, and in July 2007—a fraction of the time it would take in a civil suit of that magnitude—she had an arbitration ruling in her favor for $219 thousand. Unfortunately for her, she then took it to the cesspool of Orleans Parish Courts for enforcement, and Democratic Judge Yada Magee—a colleague of the cousin of the contractor—violated the Federal Arbitration Act and threw out the arbitrator’s ruling. (Dennis Woltering, “Despite arbitrator’s ruling woman still fighting contractor”, WWL-TV, Feb. 25). This will eventually be reinstated on appeal at some unnecessary expense, but somehow Kia Franklin is advertising this fiasco as an example of problems with arbitration (!), rather than as a problem with the judicial hellhole of New Orleans. (If the judge isn’t willing to give a fair ruling for the consumer in something as straightforward and administrative as arbitration judgment enforcement, what makes Franklin think that the consumer would have had a better chance with that judge in a civil trial?)
Judge Magee is best known for railroading negligence findings for 1800 plaintiffs against Dow Chemical in bogus silicone breast implant litigation in 1997, a decision thrown out by a Louisiana appellate court in 2002. Spitzfaden v. Dow Corning Corp., 833 So.2d 512 (La. App. 2002).