Chiquita Brands International asked a federal appeals court Thursday to dismiss lawsuits filed against the produce giant by relatives of thousands of Colombians killed in a bloody civil war, contending the cases do not belong in a U.S. court.

John Hall, attorney for Charlotte, N.C.-based Chiquita, told a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that any legal action by the relatives should be pursued in Colombia.

The lawsuits accuse Chiquita, which for decades had huge banana plantations in Colombia, of assisting in the killings by paying $1.7 million to a right-wing paramilitary group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. Chiquita has insisted it only made the payments because of threats against it by the group known as the AUC — the Spanish acronym for United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

"There is nothing to suggest that plaintiffs can't bring similar claims in Colombia," Hall said. U.S. law, he added, is "focused on the site of the conduct, not the identity of the defendant."

The Colombians' lawyer, Paul Hoffman, countered that the cases belonged in the U.S. because Chiquita is based in this country and made decisions about the payments at its headquarters, at the time in Cincinnati. Additional proof, Hoffman said, is Chiquita's 2007 guilty plea to U.S. criminal charges over the payments, which resulted in a $25 million fine.

"I can't say it any other way — it was mass murder," Hoffman said. "How could that not touch and concern the United States?"

The judges did not indicate when they would rule, a process that can take several months. Chiquita is appealing a decision not to dismiss the lawsuits by West Palm Beach-based U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra, before whom lawsuits filed in several states were consolidated in 2008. Damages could reach into the billions of dollars.

Chiquita, the largest U.S. banana seller, sold its Colombian subsidiary Banadex in 2004. The AUC payments were made over seven years before that.

The AUC was formed in 1997 to unite several right-wing militias in battle against the leftist guerrilla group known as FARC, Spanish for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The resulting campaign killed some 50,000 people, mostly civilians, according to Colombian prosecutors.

The arguments Thursday revolved mainly around a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which imposed limits on the ability of foreigners to use American courts to seek accountability and monetary damages for human rights abuses.

Like that case, the Colombian lawsuits against Chiquita invoke the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that human rights lawyers used to sue individuals and companies that allegedly were involved in abuses overseas. The Chiquita lawyer, Hall, said the Kiobel decision means there is now a presumption against such "extraterritorial" lawsuits being brought in the U.S.

"That's exactly how the court ought to rule in this case," he said.

Hoffman, however, said the Kiobel decision did not bar all lawsuits like this from the U.S. If there's enough linkage between a U.S. person or company and the overseas atrocities, he said, a case such as those against Chiquita can go forward.

"If this one's not OK, then there are no extraterritorial cases," Hoffman said.


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