After almost a decade of litigation, victims of Colombian paramilitary death squads funded by Chiquita are moving forward in a federal lawsuit against the banana giant. Yesterday, Florida federal judge Kenneth Marra rejected Chiquita’s argument that the case should be heard in Colombia rather than the United States, clearing the way for the historic case to advance toward trial.
“This decision is a great accomplishment for those of us who have searched for justice for many years,” one of the Plaintiffs, who wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said. “This gives us hope that one day justice will be a reality, and all guilty parties will take responsibility for their actions.”
In 2007, EarthRights International (ERI), joined by the co-counsel listed below, filed a class action suit against Chiquita on behalf of the families of thousands of villagers, labor leaders and community organizers murdered by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a notorious paramilitary terrorist organization. Chiquita made illegal, concealed payments to the AUC for years, totaling at least $1.6 million; the lawsuit also alleges that the AUC shipped arms and drugs through Chiquita’s ports and on Chiquita boats.
In March 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to the federal crime of funding a designated terrorist organization and paid a fine. “Chiquita profited from its relationship with the AUC, and paid the Department of Justice $25 million, but the victims of their conduct have received nothing – it is past time Chiquita compensates the families in Colombia,” said Marco Simons, ERI’s General Counsel. “We are pleased that the Court agreed that ‘The United States has a strong interest in monitoring and deterring unethical and illegal conduct of American corporations in supporting foreign terrorist organizations.’ The Plaintiffs sued Chiquita here in its home court where Chiquita will get a fair hearing on the merits, something the company seems to have been trying to delay for a decade,” added co-counsel Agnieszka Fryszman of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
Despite the fact that Chiquita pulled out of Colombia, and now has no operations or assets there, Chiquita argued that it was more “convenient” for them to litigate in Colombia than the United States. The court rejected this position, finding Colombia to be an inadequate forum in light of the serious security risks for Plaintiffs and their lawyers. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders where at least 335 were murdered between 2009 and 2015. “Our clients chose to litigate in the United States because it is the only forum where they can litigate safely and where they can be sure that Chiquita will pay,” said Simons.
The case against Chiquita will continue for its alleged violations of Colombian law. The Plaintiffs have also sued several former Chiquita executives that were allegedly responsible for making, approving and concealing the payments to the AUC. And, on June 1, 2016, Judge Marra ruled that the claims against those executives, including claims for torture and extrajudicial killing under the Torture Victim Protection Act, could also continue. The case now moves into the discovery phase.
In addition to ERI, the plaintiffs are represented by the law firms of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP, and attorneys Judith Brown Chomsky, Arturo Carrillo, and John DeLeon. The case, Doe v. Chiquita Brands International, No. 08-MD-80421, is joined with several lawsuits against Chiquita proceeding before Judge Marra.