Over 400 family members of Colombians killed by paramilitary terrorists, which were illegally funded by Chiquita Brands International, look to the high court to allow their lawsuit to proceed.
March 14, 2023, Washington, D.C. – Today, 456 survivors of paramilitary violence in Colombia sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court of a decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing their claims as untimely and preventing them from seeking justice from Chiquita Brands International, which admitted to funding the terrorist organization that killed their family members.
The issue raised in the petition is whether the statute of limitations stopped running on their claims after EarthRights International filed a class action on their behalf in 2007. Ordinarily, members of a class action do not need to file separate claims because the class action suspends the statute of limitations until the class action is resolved. In this case, the Eleventh Circuit rejected that argument because EarthRights’ clients’ lawsuit was governed by Colombian law. This ruling was wrong, and the consequences for both our clients and class action practice across the United States are unacceptable.
“We look to the Supreme Court to correct this injustice and instruct on the proper application of the law,” said EarthRights General Counsel Marco Simons. “These victims should not lose their right to seek justice from Chiquita because they relied on a doctrine created by the Supreme Court itself.”
Nearly 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the filing of a class action suspends the statute of limitations for all class members. The Court’s primary concern was that forcing class members to file separate suits would cause ‘needless duplication’ of litigation, resulting in hundreds or thousands more lawsuits clogging the federal courts. Now, the Eleventh Circuit’s decision will create the problem the Supreme Court sought to avoid.
“Chiquita was in no way surprised by these plaintiffs’ claims,” added Simons. “They were part of a class action for more than a decade. They disclosed their names to Chiquita years ago. They did what they were supposed to do according to the Supreme Court’s own
rulings – wait until the class action was resolved before filing separate lawsuits. We hope the Supreme Court will understand that justice demands that these plaintiffs – and others like them, in countless other cases – should be allowed to proceed.”
EarthRights also represents additional victims of AUC violence funded by Chiquita, who filed their claims individually in 2007, and who won the right to proceed to trial against Chiquita last year. At the Supreme Court, the clients are represented by Kevin Russell of Goldstein, Russell & Woofter, LLC, with assistance from the Harvard Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.
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.
In 2007, EarthRights filed a federal class action lawsuit against Chiquita. That suit was consolidated with several other lawsuits filed around the country by other victims, represented by several groups of lawyers, which are now being heard in federal district court for the Southern District of Florida, in West Palm Beach.
In 2019, the district court ruled that the case could not proceed as a class action. Less than a year later, EarthRights filed suit on behalf of 456 additional victims of AUC violence. The district court found that their claims were untimely, however, ruling that these victims could not rely on the class action to suspend the statute of limitations. The plaintiffs appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which affirmed the district court’s ruling in September 2022.
The case against Chiquita is well-founded. Two days before the ruling on these plaintiffs, a different panel of the Eleventh Circuit held that a set of ten plaintiffs – including two plaintiffs represented by EarthRights – had presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. On March 15, 2023, the district court will hold a hearing to schedule the first trial against the banana giant.
In addition to Goldstein, Russell & Woofter, EarthRights’ co-counsel includes Paul L. Hoffman of Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP; Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; and attorneys Judith Brown Chomsky, Anthony DiCaprio, and Arturo Carrillo.
Kate Fried, EarthRights International