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Executive says ‘new Dole’ should not pay for misdeeds of ‘old Dole’

Times Staff Writer

In an extraordinary public mea culpa, a top Dole Food Co. executive Wednesday pleaded with jurors considering punitive damages against the firm to separate the “old Dole” from what he called the enlightened “new Dole.”

C. Michael Carter, executive vice president and general counsel, testified in Los Angeles County Superior Court that “today’s Dole” would never put concern for production over the safety of its 75,000 workers, as it did in 1977 when it ignored evidence that the pesticide DBCP could leave its banana workers unable to have children.

Last week, jurors ordered Dole to pay $3 million in compensation to six laborers who were rendered sterile. On Wednesday, the same jury gathered in the courtroom of Judge Victoria G. Chaney to determine whether the company’s behavior deserved financial punishment.

Duane Miller, the workers’ lawyer, questioned Carter closely and suggested that Dole still uses dangerous pesticides in Central America, including paraquat, a weed killer, long after competing growers have stopped.

Miller said that Dole’s behavior was worse than simply failing to protect its workers from sterility. Dole, he argued, actually made it impossible for workers to protect themselves.

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“It is reprehensible conduct,” he said. “It should be punished.”

Carter testified that he is “flat certain” that the Westlake Village-based corporation has cleaned up its act, suggesting that punishment is pointless. Only one of 60 top executives employed by the firm in 1977 is still working for Dole today, he said. Dole was publicly held until 2001, when it became a private corporation.

A new corporate code of conduct designed to “empower” employees has been distributed to all workers worldwide in 11 languages, Carter said. In it, the company pledges never to use pesticides banned in the United States or Europe, and states that worker safety and environmental concerns are top objectives.

Rick McNight, Dole’s lawyer, asked whether the document had been put into practice.

“It’s not simply words. We’ve told employees this is the way we’re going to conduct our business,” Carter testified.

DBCP, which has been banned worldwide, fights pests that attack the roots of fruit trees. However, the chemical also stops rabbits from procreating, and rendered both field hands and production workers incapable of having children. The chemical boosts the weight of banana harvests by 20%, according to testimony in the six-month-long trial.

Even before the jury’s final verdict, Anton Hernandez Ordenana, a Nicaraguan lawyer representing the winning workers, hailed the trial as “a historical victory against a monster. We have overcome stone walls, we are talking about humble peasants against a monster.”

Ordenana said thousands of other Central American workers are waiting for their day in court. Four other lawsuits over the use of the same pesticide are pending before Chaney. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed in Central America, and many verdicts have been returned against Dole, although the company continues to fight liability there.

The trial before Chaney marked the first time a U.S. jury has been asked to judge Dole. Results here could lead both sides to settle the claims in a global agreement, observers said.

Jurors last week concluded that Dole had acted with “malice, fraud, and oppression.” That finding allows more damages in addition to the $3 million already awarded to workers, which was intended only to compensate victims.

In California, businesses may not insure against punitive damages. In the past, some businesses have gone bankrupt as a result of large punitive damage awards against them.

Under recent U. S. Supreme Court decisions, jurors generally are limited to fixing punitive damages at nine times the actual damages they have returned.

McNight returned again and again Wednesday to his contrast of the old and the new Doles -- separated by “different people, different leadership, different policies.” He said the first money verdict and the public shame of the jury’s finding that Dole acted fraudulently and maliciously are punishment enough.

“Today’s Dole will pay that penalty for that conduct of old Dole,” McNight said.

john.spano@latimes.com


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