The decision overturns a lower court ruling and reinstates claims against Chiquita in a historic lawsuit over the company’s role in funding paramilitary groups in Colombia.
September 6, 2022, Atlanta, Ga.–Today, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that several families suing Chiquita Brands International for its role in funding paramilitary death squads in Colombia can proceed toward a jury trial.
The Eleventh Circuit reversed a September 2019 summary judgment decision by a federal judge in Florida, who had ruled the victims lacked admissible evidence showing that their family members were murdered by the paramilitaries. In reversing the district court, the Eleventh Circuit found substantial evidence of paramilitary involvement in the killings.
EarthRights International initially filed the suit in 2007 and represents families of hundreds of victims murdered, tortured, and injured by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an outlawed paramilitary organization that Chiquita admitted to illegally funding.
EarthRights General Counsel Marco Simons issued the following statement:
“Today’s order was a milestone in this historic lawsuit. The families have been waiting years to have their day in court despite strenuous efforts by Chiquita to have the case dismissed. Now that the appellate court has reinstated the case, the families are looking forward to a jury trial.
“Chiquita has long admitted that it illegally funded the AUC. This ruling finally gives our clients the chance to show to the court, and the world, what everyone in Colombia knows: that the AUC used Chiquita’s support to engage in brutal atrocities against civilians in the banana-growing regions of Colombia. There is overwhelming evidence that the AUC murdered thousands of Colombians, including our clients’ family members there.
“Much of this evidence has been developed over more than a decade through the Justice and Peace process in Colombia. The district court rejected evidence from that process, and we are relieved that the appellate court has appropriately considered the results of Colombia’s own justice system and overturned the erroneous decision of the lower court.
“Perhaps the most significant aspect of this ruling is that it accepts the admission of circumstantial evidence and expert testimony to show that murders that occurred at times and places where the AUC was in control and in a manner that fits with the AUC’s methods and motives, to show that the murders were committed by the AUC. That conclusion will apply to hundreds if not thousands of the victims in this case.”
Agnieszka Fryszman, plaintiffs’ counsel at Cohen Milstein added:
“We are very pleased that the Eleventh Circuit carefully and thoroughly evaluated the district court’s approach to Plaintiffs evidence – in 104 pages – and unanimously reversed the lower court’s summary judgment decision. This is a very important case for corporate accountability. Chiquita has already admitted it paid over a million dollars to the AUC, a paramilitary group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. The Eleventh Circuit has now found that the Plaintiffs presented sufficient admissible evidence to show that the AUC killed their loved ones. After years of briefing these issues, we look forward to presenting our evidence to a jury and seeking justice for our clients.”
For nearly a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s, Chiquita Brands International made regular payments to the AUC, totaling more than $1.7 million. In turn, the AUC engaged in a campaign of violence against communities in Colombia’s banana-growing regions, including trade unions, political opponents, and Indigenous advocates. In 2001, the U.S. government classified the AUC as a terrorist organization. Chiquita pled guilty to a federal crime for funding the AUC and paid a $25 million fine to the U.S. government but has not yet compensated the families of the AUC’s victims.
Thousands of victims, represented by several groups of lawyers, have filed suit against Chiquita in federal courts across the country; those suits were consolidated and are being heard in federal district court for the Southern District of Florida, in West Palm Beach. The cases for a dozen killings were selected as “bellwether” cases to proceed as examples. The district court ruled in September 2019 that these bellwether cases could not proceed to trial because the plaintiffs had not submitted sufficient evidence that their family members had been murdered by the AUC.
These bellwether cases include two of EarthRights’ clients, known by the pseudonyms John Doe 7 and Jane Doe 7. John Doe 7’s son was murdered by AUC paramilitaries, and the local paramilitary commander admitted this to John Doe 7 himself. Jane Doe 7’s husband, a labor activist, was also murdered by the AUC; his murder fits a pattern of the AUC targeting union leaders. The court of appeals found that both plaintiffs had submitted sufficient evidence on this issue to proceed to trial.
EarthRights’ co-counsel includes Paul L. Hoffman of Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP, who argued the appeal; Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; and attorneys Judith Brown Chomsky, Anthony DiCaprio, and Arturo Carrillo.
Kate Fried, EarthRights International