Victims of paramilitary terrorists funded by the banana company sued Chiquita in 2007; the first group of murders will finally proceed to trial in January 2024.
March 15, 2023, West Palm Beach, FL – Today, federal judge Kenneth Marra of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ordered the banana company Chiquita Brands International to stand trial for illegally financing paramilitary death squads in Colombia, allowing 17 victims’ families to present their cases to a jury in January of 2024.
“After nearly 16 years of litigation, this is a historic advance toward justice for these families,” said Marco Simons, General Counsel at EarthRights International, which represents several of the plaintiffs now proceeding to trial. “Chiquita funded death squads that murdered thousands of people, and while they admitted to a federal crime, they have never provided any compensation to the families who were shattered by their illegal and abhorrent conduct.”
For nearly a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s, Chiquita Brands International made regular payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), totaling more than $1.7 million. In turn, AUC death squads 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.
“Our clients have been waiting decades for justice, so we are gratified that the Court has set a trial date and look forward to presenting our evidence to a jury,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, chair of the Human Rights Practice Group at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, who also represents the plaintiffs. “Our clients allege that the deaths and injuries at the heart of this case were a direct and foreseeable result of Chiquita’s financial support of the AUC – a paramilitary group designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization – payments that should never have been made.”
In March 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to a federal crime for funding the AUC and paid a $25 million fine to the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, in July 2007, EarthRights filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of victims of the AUC. Since then, the suit has been proceeding alongside several other suits filed against Chiquita in courts around the country, which have been consolidated in front of Judge Marra in Florida. The court denied class treatment in 2019, but thousands of individual victims have joined the lawsuits.
With so many victims, the case has been proceeding with a handful of “bellwether” cases that would be tried first. In 2019, Judge Marra ruled that the first group of bellwether plaintiffs had not presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. That decision was overturned in September 2022 by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the victims were killed by paramilitaries. Now, Judge Marra has set a trial date of January 16, 2024, for the first group of 17 cases to be heard before a federal jury.
In addition to EarthRights and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, counsel for the plaintiffs include Paul L. Hoffman of Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP, and attorneys Judith Brown Chomsky, Anthony DiCaprio, and Arturo Carrillo.
Kate Fried, EarthRights International