A federal judge refused Friday to dismiss lawsuits filed by thousands of Colombians against produce seller Chiquita Brands International over its payments to a right-wing paramilitary group responsible for killing and terrorizing civilians during Colombia's lengthy civil conflict.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra's 95-page ruling permits at least 4,000 Colombians to pursue claims for damages against Chiquita for torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the AUC, a Spanish acronym for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia formed in 1997 to combat leftist anti-government guerrillas.
Chiquita paid the group $1.7 million over a seven-year period, even after it was designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization in 2001. Chiquita pleaded guilty in 2007 to U.S. criminal charges stemming from the payments and paid a $25 million fine, but attorneys for the Colombians suing the company say civil damages could reach many times that amount.
"This is a remarkable victory for the thousands of Colombian victims of Chiquita Brands," said plaintiffs' attorney Paul Wolf. "Although the individual claims still have to be proven at trial, it looks like the road ahead is pretty clear, and I am very optimistic of our chances of success."
Cincinnati-based Chiquita, the largest banana seller in the U.S., said in a statement that the lawsuits are filled with "outrageous and false allegations." Chiquita insists it was the victim of extortion and was forced to pay the AUC or face violence directed at its employees and assets in Colombia.
"The court's ruling makes clear that for these claims to succeed, plaintiffs will have to prove that Chiquita shared the murderous aims of the AUC _ not merely that Chiquita knew the AUC was a violent group," the statement said. "The plaintiffs will never be able to prove this, because it is not true."
In his ruling, Marra said there were enough detailed allegations to give the Colombians a chance to prove that Chiquita knew its money would be used to attack, kidnap or torture civilians seen as supporters or sympathizers of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Those allegations, Marra said, include the claim that "Chiquita assisted the AUC with the intent that the AUC commit torture and killing in the banana-growing regions." He added that he rejected Chiquita's claims that the $1.7 million was not "substantial assistance" to the AUC in its battle with FARC and its backers.
"The civilians were targeted as civilians, not as participants in the civil war," Marra wrote of the lawsuits' claims.
Attorney Agnieska Fryszman, who represents some of the Colombians, said the victims included community organizers, union leaders, social activists and banana workers, among others.
"The plaintiffs in this case lost family members, including sons who were banana workers and mothers who stood up for their communities," she said. "They look forward to having their claims heard by a jury."
The lawsuits also contend that Chiquita helped smuggle AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition through its Colombian port at Turbo for the AUC. The company claims its employees were absolved of wrongdoing after investigations by the Organization of American States and Colombian authorities.
The judge did dismiss a number of the Colombians' claims, including those seeking damages under terrorism support allegations. But attorneys for the Colombians said that's less important than the fact the case is proceeding. The next step, they said, will be interviewing Chiquita executives under oath and digging for documents at company headquarters.
"This is an unusual case because the company already pleaded guilty to the crime we're accusing them of," said plaintiffs' attorney Terry Collingsworth. "The biggest challenge we have now is how to sort out the individual claimants."
Chiquita has estimated the Colombian claimants at about 4,000, although some are potential class actions that could encompass many more people. The cases have been filed in several federal courts around the country and consolidated for pretrial rulings before Marra, whose base is West Palm Beach.
The lawsuits were brought under the Alien Tort Statute, a law that allows foreigners to sue in American federal courts if their claims involve violations of U.S. treaties or the "law of nations," and the Torture Victims Protection Act.
Curt Anderson is on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt