LOS ANGELES – A judge on Thursday dismissed a $2.3 million judgment against Dole Food Co. in a lawsuit by purported Nicaraguan banana workers, ruling that the company and the court were victims of a massive fraud.
"The plaintiffs have unabashedly tampered with witnesses," she said, noting that they had threatened investigators who tried to get information in Nicaragua.
A jury in 2007 awarded the money to six workers who claimed exposure to pesticides at Dole plantations made them sterile.
In Thursday's ruling, Chaney found that Los Angeles lawyer Juan J. Dominguez orchestrated a fraud in which he recruited people to say they had been banana workers when they had not. Chaney also found that a series of "John Doe" witnesses who blew the whistle on the fraud were generally credible.
The judge dismissed a companion case last year for similar reasons. Testimony in that case showed plaintiffs pretended to have been workers on Dole banana farms in the 1970s and faked lab tests to show they became sterile.
Chaney has been elevated to the California 2nd District Court of Appeals, but returned to Los Angeles Superior Court to hear Dole's motion to throw out the verdict since she handled the original trial.
"There has been a massive fraud perpetrated on the court," she said, citing three legal cases, including the one she dismissed last year.
She rejected claims that the "John Doe" whistleblowers were bribed to expose the fraud, saying: "The court is not persuaded."
The plaintiffs' lawyer had noted that Dole paid to relocate witnesses to Costa Rica, but the judge said the move was prompted by threats on them. She said Dole may have been "overly generous" in covering their living costs but that she was "unable to uncover instances of bribery by Dole. I do not find that it was to suborn perjury."
On the flip side, she said she found no misconduct by Texas lawyers Mark Sparks and Benton Musslewhite, who were accused by Dole of participating in the fraud conspiracy. But she said that Dominguez was clearly a force in setting up the fraud and that he recruited and coached plaintiffs to the point that "their answers resembled rote answers in a catechism class."
She also noted that while there had been perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 workers on Dole plantations in Nicaragua from 1973 to 1980, suits were filed by more than 14,000 plaintiffs.
Antonio Hernandez Ordenana, a lawyer representing six plaintiffs, said from Nicaragua that the ruling was unjust because it "rides roughshod over the 2007 judgement that found Dole acted improperly by selling pesticides (in Nicaragua) that were prohibited under U.S. laws." He also disputed the judge's findings about the alleged recruitment of plaintiffs.
During earlier court proceedings, witnesses claimed Hernandez Ordenana worked with Dominguez to recruit fake banana workers, and he was shown on film organizing rallies against Dole investigators. At recent news conferences, he has presented witnesses who recanted claims of fraud.
Chaney said there had been "heartbreaking testimony" about the poverty, illiteracy and deprivation of Nicaraguans and that she understood why they would be lured to join a lawsuit that promised them riches.
The judge has expressed concern about maintaining the integrity of the justice system and sending a message that fraud will not be tolerated.
Chaney said that the fraud on the court was costly, noting that the original trial occupied a courtroom for more than four months at $7,000 a day and businesses paid salaries for the 16 jurors.
Outside court, plaintiffs' lawyer Steve Condie said he would appeal the ruling even though some of the older banana workers might die before the case is resolved.
"We had a judge who had already decided that my clients and every American attorney opposing Dole in Nicaragua were part of a vast conspiracy," said Condie. "Sadly, I expected this from day one, which is why I stepped in to take this case to the Court of Appeal."
Dole defense attorney Scott Edelman said the case "was brought by fake banana workers. The few remaining banana workers who believe they were harmed are hurt by the conduct of people who bring false claims."
Edelman said more cases are pending against Dole, imported to the U.S. from Honduras and Costa Rica.
The judge said a new trial would not be granted and promised to issue a written ruling within a few weeks.
Associated Press writer Filadelfo Aleman in Managua, Nicaragua contributed to this report.