In a victory for accountability for corporate crimes, families of those murdered by Colombian paramilitary death squads can proceed with a U.S. federal lawsuit against former Chiquita executives. Yesterday, Judge Kenneth Marra of the Southern District of Florida ruled that, according to the plaintiffs’ allegations, “profits took priority over basic human welfare” in the banana company executives’ decision to finance the illegal death squads, despite knowing that this would advance the paramilitaries’ murderous campaign.
EarthRights International (ERI) brought suit against Chiquita in 2007 on behalf of victims and surviving family members of thousands of villagers, labor leaders, and community organizers who were killed by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), after Chiquita pled guilty to federal criminal charges for funding and providing material support to the AUC, an outlawed terrorist organization. In 2012, the plaintiffs sued several individual Chiquita executives involved in the illegal funding scheme.
“Corporations do not act without individuals,” said Marco Simons, General Counsel of EarthRights International (ERI), co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “The court’s decision ensures that these individuals, whose alleged conduct helped enable a reign of terror, cannot hide from their wrongdoing.”
The class-action lawsuit, Doe v. Chiquita, alleges that over the course of several years, Chiquita and its executives – including former CEOs, General Counsels and General Managers – made or approved illegal payments to the AUC which totaled approximately $1.7 million, all the while knowing full well that they were funding a designated terrorist organization. (See Appendix, below, for information on the allegations against each individual defendant.)
The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit on numerous grounds, including that the plaintiffs had not shown that they were personally involved in wrongful conduct, and because the abuses had occurred abroad. Judge Marra rejected these arguments, allowing the lawsuit to move forward against all defendants in ERI’s lawsuit.
The judge also rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs have other “adequate and available” remedies in Colombia, relying in part on plaintiffs’ evidence that litigation in Colombia would be too dangerous because of the ongoing risk of violent retaliation.
Chiquita lost a similar motion to dismiss in 2011.
In addition to ERI, the plaintiffs are represented by the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP, and attorneys Judith Brown Chomsky, Arturo Carrillo, and John DeLeon.