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Judge cites safety fears in Dole pesticide case

A Los Angeles judge overseeing a lawsuit by Nicaraguan banana workers against food giant Dole said Monday that she was concerned for her safety and the safety of witnesses due to escalating unrest in the Central American country.

“Statements made in radio broadcasts and a press conference were pretty direct against me, or this court,” 2nd District Court of Appeals Judge Victoria G. Chaney said after hearing evidence presented to her by Dole attorneys in a closed hearing. She did not elaborate on what the statements were. Chaney said she would relate the information to the county’s judicial protection unit.

Chaney made the comments during a hearing in the case of six Nicaraguan banana workers who won a $2.3-million jury verdict against Dole for the use of pesticides that they say left them sterile. Dole, which has alleged that the workers’ claims were manufactured and evidence was fabricated by plaintiffs’ lawyers, is seeking to have the verdict thrown out.

Scott Edelman, an attorney for Dole, said the statements made in Nicaragua accused Chaney of being “totally amoral,” “unethical” and “corrupt,” and accused her of ruling in Dole’s favor to garner a promotion to the Court of Appeal. Edelman called the statements “an effort to intimidate her to rule in a certain way.”

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Dole’s fraud allegations were largely based on the testimony of 27 witnesses whose identities have been kept secret. Chaney said Dole’s attorneys presented evidence that led her to believe the secret witnesses were being threatened, amounting to “serious witness tampering.”

After the hearing, plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Condie said Dole was throwing up roadblocks to his efforts to collect evidence and disputed allegations that the statements were direct threats. He has previously argued that the secret witnesses received cash payments from Dole in exchange for their testimony.

“Every time I’m on the verge of getting new evidence, they bring up witness safety,” he said. “I don’t think there was any threatening statement about anybody.”

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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