On December 15, 2022, Judge Kenneth A. Marra of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled that 10 bellwether cases can proceed to trial after he identified enough evidence that the plaintiffs' family members were murdered or disappeared by Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary group designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization, during armed conflict in Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Those plaintiffs, the judge said, have presented a "triable issue" on the existence of an AUC link to their family members' eventual fates.
Cohen Milstein, EarthRights International and other co-counsel represent family members of the trade unionists, banana workers, political organizers, activists and others killed by the AUC. Plaintiffs allege that the deaths of their relatives were a direct and foreseeable result of Chiquita’s financial support of the AUC.. The case is proceeding under Colombian law against Chiquita and under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act against individual Chiquita executives and board members.
A four week trial by jury is scheduled to begin on January 16, 2024.
Other Important Rulings
- On September 6, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that several families suing Chiquita Brands International for its role in funding paramilitary torture and death squads in Colombia can proceed toward a jury trial. The Eleventh Circuit’s ruling reversed a September 2019 summary judgment decision by Judge Kenneth A. Marra of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, who had ruled the victims lacked admissible evidence showing that their family members were murdered by Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary group designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. In reversing the district court, the Eleventh Circuit found Plaintiffs’ had presented substantial admissible evidence of paramilitary involvement in the killings.
In March 2007, Defendant Chiquita Brands International pled guilty to criminal charges to knowingly providing material support to the AUC, a paramilitary organization widely known for its violent attacks on Colombian civilians and designated a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the United States government. The United States described Chiquita’s support to the AUC as “prolonged, steady, and substantial” in the August 2008 Sentencing Memorandum submitted to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and found, after a full investigation, that “Chiquita’s money helped buy weapons and ammunition used to kill innocent victims.”
Plaintiffs allege that for seven years, Chiquita provided not only financial assistance to the AUC, totaling more than $1.7 million in regular monthly payments (accounted for as "security services"), but also shipments of arms and ammunition with the knowledge, from the day the first payment was made, that the AUC was a violent organization responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearances, war crimes, and other human rights violations.
With Chiquita's support, during this time, the AUC and predecessor paramilitary groups expanded from about 1,000 to more than 30,000 fighters. Based on official sources in Colombia, "paramilitaries were responsible for killing or disappearing more than 100,000 civilians during this time period and committed more than 10,000 acts of torture," court records said. The Plaintiffs in this case are surviving family members of the victims, who include husbands who were banana workers, wives who were community leaders, and children allegedly targeted by the AUC.
The case, Doe v. Chiquita Brands International, No. 08-01916 (S.D. Fla.), was originally filed in New Jersey, and was subsequently coordinated with other similar cases as In re Chiquita Brands International Inc. Alien Tort Statute and Shareholder Derivative Litigation in West Palm Beach, Florida.