MIAMI — Faced with potentially billions of dollars in legal liability, Chiquita Brands International is asking a federal appeals court to block lawsuits filed against it in the U.S. by thousands of Colombians whose relatives were killed in that country’s bloody, decades-long civil war.
The produce giant, which long had huge banana plantations in Colombia, has admitted paying a right-wing Colombian paramilitary group $1.7 million over seven years. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company insists it was blackmailed into paying or risking violence against its own operations and employees, although in 2007 Chiquita pleaded guilty to U.S. criminal charges that it had supported terrorists. It paid a $25 million fine.
The Colombian lawsuits, consolidated for pretrial action before a federal judge in West Palm Beach, want Chiquita held liable for thousands of deaths at the hands of the AUC, the Spanish abbreviation for the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The Colombian relatives have won several key pretrial rulings, but Chiquita is taking its fight for dismissal to a new level.
In essence, Chiquita wants the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the lawsuits because, the company claims, each homicide cannot be tied specifically to the company. It’s not enough, Chiquita’s lawyers say in court papers, to assume the company’s payments to the AUC meant Chiquita knew about and supported those individual killings.
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Chiquita also says the Colombian cases should be tossed because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last April in a case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which imposed new limits on the ability of foreigners to use U.S. courts to seek accountability and monetary damages for human-rights abuses.
Any decision by the 11th Circuit is likely months away, adding to the years Colombian relatives have been waiting for a resolution. The cases were consolidated in Florida in 2008.
The payments to the AUC were not the first made by Chiquita against the backdrop of Colombia’s civil conflict. Previously, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — known as FARC — demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from Chiquita and other companies or their employees and operations would be attacked.
The AUC was formed in 1997 to unite several right-wing militias to battle FARC and its supporters. The resulting campaign, supported by top Colombian political leaders, eventually resulted in 50,000 mostly civilian deaths and several infamous massacres, Colombian prosecutors say.
Chiquita, the largest U.S. banana seller, first had banana operations in Colombia in 1899. The company sold its Colombian subsidiary Banadex in 2004.