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Judge hears evidence as Dole Food Co. seeks to overturn pesticide verdict

A Los Angeles judge this week heard evidence on whether a jury relied on fraudulent evidence three years ago when it awarded $2.3 million to six Nicaraguan banana workers who alleged they were left sterilized by exposure to pesticide.

Attorneys for food giant Dole Food Co., which operated the farms in the 1970s and used the pesticide dibromochloropropane, alleged the plaintiffs in the 2007 trial were the “foot soldiers” in a pervasive scheme to defraud U.S. courts and corporations.

An Oakland-based appellate attorney now representing the plaintiffs has alleged that Dole obtained testimony about the alleged fraud by giving witnesses cash payments and lavish treatment.

This week’s hearing was part of the fallout of a sweeping ruling made by Judge Victoria G. Chaney last year concerning the banana workers and their American lawyers. In dismissing two pending civil cases, Chaney wrote that there was massive fraud by attorneys who recruited bogus plaintiffs, coached them to testify and doctored spurious lab tests about their sterility.

She based her findings largely on testimony from 27 witnesses whose identities were kept secret because of threats they face in Nicaragua. Based on Chaney’s findings, a state appeals court ordered plaintiffs in the earlier case, Tellez vs. Dole Food Co., to show that their allegations were not based on fraud.

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The Tellez case, the first to go to trial out of thousands of claims from farmworkers in Central America and Africa, was tried over four months in 2007 and ended in mixed results: a jury awarded damages to six plaintiffs but not to six others.

Attorneys for Dole argued before Chaney this week that in light of the findings that later emerged, even the claims of the men who won verdicts in the trial were tainted by the fraud.

“If the jury had known about the corrupt system in Nicaragua … it would’ve been a very different trial and the jury would’ve come out differently,” said Theodore Boutrous, an attorney for Dole.

Dole’s attorneys played deposition and trial testimony by the plaintiffs in which they couldn’t recall specifics about the farms where they worked, couldn’t answer questions about the smell of the chemical or were sterile before beginning work on a banana farm.

Attorney Steve Condie, who took on the cases of the six men after all of their attorneys had resigned, said a U.S. jury had considered the evidence and reached a verdict. He also contended Dole had all the information concerning the alleged fraud before the Tellez trial.

“That’s how we find out things in this country, you let a jury decide,” he said after Tuesday’s hearing.

In court papers, Condie has called into question cash given to some witnesses and the treatment they received when they were relocated. Dole attorneys said those expenses were approved by the judge and agreed to by former plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The hearing is expected to continue next month.

victoria.kim@latimes.com


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