Chiquita Brands International asked a judge Friday to dismiss lawsuits
claiming the banana company paid Colombian paramilitary groups that
killed hundreds or even thousands of people.
Lawyers for Chiquita insisted that the money it paid over a
seven-year period to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia had no
direct connection to massacres, kidnappings, assassinations and acts of
intimidation committed by the group in banana-growing regions.
are no allegations that Chiquita was directly involved in any of these
incidents,” said Gregg Levy, an attorney for Cincinnati-based Chiquita.
company acknowledges a subsidiary had paid the right-wing paramilitary
group — known by its Spanish acronym AUC — and another group. But its
lawyers contend the company was essentially extorted by the groups that
controlled areas where its bananas are grown.
But lawyers for the
Colombian plaintiffs claim in the lawsuits that Chiquita should be held
liable for billions of dollars in wrongful death damages, alleging it
paid both the AUC and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC. The U.S. lists both as terrorist groups.
AUC was engaging in murder, torture, forced disappearances and
destruction of these communities,” said Terry Collingsworth,
representing family members of about 173 people who died. “Everybody
knew this. Chiquita knew it.”
The lawsuits claim Chiquita should
be held liable for allegedly providing material support to the AUC in
the form of cash, weapons such as AK-47s, military supplies and even
access to its banana ports for cocaine trafficking.
lawyers for the hundreds of Colombian plaintiffs claim, the AUC used
violence to drive out or kill Colombian labor leaders, attack rival
left-wing FARC guerrillas and their sympathizers, and essentially
become rulers of a region encompassing some 200 Chiquita banana farms.
lawsuits were filed around the country and consolidated in West Palm
Beach before U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra, who held a hearing
Friday on the company’s motions to dismiss.
Marra is expected to
issue a written ruling later in cases that collectively could amount to
the largest wrongful death claims in U.S. history, according to
attorneys involved. There was no timetable for Marra to rule.
claim on behalf of more than 600 people identified only as “Juan Does
and Juana Does” is seeking $20 million for each plaintiff, or more than
$13 billion. Another lawsuit seeks class-action status, which could
amount to tens of thousands of plaintiffs and possibly higher damage
amounts if successful.
Collingsworth said the AUC’s actions
pacified the region, claiming that improved Chiquita’s profits from
Colombia and forced out any smaller competitors.
Chiquita, he said, “knew their support was accomplishing these objectives,” he said.
The lawsuits were filed after Chiquita previously acknowledged making payments to the AUC. The company paid a $25 million fine.
Chiquita denies responsibility for killings by the Colombian groups.
Through its Banadex subsidiary, Chiquita said it paid about $1.7
million from 1997 to 2004 to the AUC.
Chiquita, which sold
Banadex in 2004, contends that it was forced to pay both the AUC and
FARC as a form of extortion and that the company had no control over
violent acts by those groups. The two paramilitary groups have fought
for decades in Colombia’s bloody civil war, and Levy questioned whether
the AUC was engaged in “terrorism” in the legal sense.
considerable dispute among the nations of the world about terrorism.
There are disputes about the definition of terrorism,” Levy said.
lawsuits were brought under the Alien Tort Statute, adopted in 1789 in
part to deal with piracy claims. It allows non-U.S. citizens to make
claims in U.S. courts for acts that violate international law.