LOS ANGELES – Dole Food Co. concealed from poor Central American farmworkers the danger of sterilization posed by a pesticide used in the Nicaragua banana fields, a Los Angeles jury decided Monday.
Jurors awarded $2.8 million to six workers, and held Dole responsible for 80 percent of the damages. The trial will continue today to determine if Dole also should be assessed punitive damages.
The verdict was the first time a U.S. jury has been allowed to decide on the dangers to farmworkers of the pesticide, Fumazone, which has been banned in most places and was removed from use in the United States in 1977. The chemical fights pests that attack the roots of fruit trees, but also stops rabbits from procreating, and rendered the workers who manufactured it sterile.
The chemical boosts the weight of banana harvests by 20 percent, according to evidence presented in the six-month trial before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney.
The case was seen as a test of how well the U.S. legal system responds to injuries inflicted as the result of globalization. Because the harm occurred in Central America, the defendants had argued for years that the trials should take place there, rather than in Los Angeles.
Jurors deliberated weeks before deciding that six of the workers were harmed by Dole and six were not. For the injured workers, jurors found that Fumazone was defective and its risks outweighed its benefits, and that Dole actively concealed its dangers from its own workers.
The case also targeted Dow Chemical Co., which produced Fumazone, a pesticide containing the chemical DBCP. Tests show DBCP stops rabbits from reproducing. It was not known Monday afternoon what action the jury had taken in regard to Dow’s role.
The workers, all field hands, were robbed of their “male sexual identity,” argued Duane Miller, the lead counsel for the workers.
Courts in Nicaragua have returned more than $600 million in judgments against Dole and other companies in DBCP cases – awards considered almost impossible to collect.
Unlike those earlier cases, the current legal action marks the first time that DBCP claims have been tried in a U.S. court. Since the 1980s, attorneys have filed civil lawsuits on behalf of more than 30,000 workers on plantations in Africa, Latin America and the Philippines.