BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – A jury Thursday rejected claims that an Alabama-based coal company was to blame for the killing of three union leaders in Colombia, a defeat for labor in a test of whether companies can be held responsible in U.S. courtrooms for their conduct overseas.
Jurors sided with Drummond Ltd. and the head of its Colombian operations, Augusto Jimenez, in ruling against a lawsuit filed by relatives and the union of the dead men, killed by paramilitary gunmen six years ago.
The company denied any involvement with the slayings or with militia forces in the South American nation, where it operates a huge surface mine.
Lawyers in the case and outside experts said the suit was the first to go to trial against a U.S. corporation under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law that lets foreigners file suit in federal court for alleged wrongdoing overseas.
"We will be appealing swiftly," said plaintiffs' attorney Terry Collingsworth.
Jimenez wiped away tears after the verdict. He declined to comment, but a company statement said the verdict was "a long time coming."
Valmore Locarno, president of the local union at Drummond's mine at La Loma, and another union official, Victor Orcasita, were pulled off a company bus and shot to death in March 2001.
Gustavo Soler, who followed Locarno as president, was murdered seven months later after being taken off a bus.
A paramilitary leader is charged with Locarno and Orcasita's murders.
Lawyers for the men's families and their union, Sintramienergetica, told jurors the killings followed months of growing tension between the men and the company. Drummond helped the paramilitaries blamed for the murders by giving them safe haven on mine property and gasoline, they argued.
Drummond attorneys said the deaths were a tragic part of years of violence in Colombia.
More than 800 union members have been killed in Colombia in the last six years, making it the world's most dangerous country for labor. Only a few of the killings have been solved.