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Federal Appeals Court Resurrects Major Lawsuit Against Chiquita for Funding Colombian Terrorist Organization

Law & Crime

September 7, 2022

A federal appellate court resurrected a major lawsuit Tuesday against banana company Chiquita Brands International for allegedly supporting a Colombian terrorist group that kidnapped, tortured, and murdered plaintiffs’ family members during a civil war. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found that the trial court “got some right and some wrong” on its evidentiary calls, and that the plaintiffs had put forth enough evidence for the case to survive to the next phase of litigation.

The lawsuit has been going on since 2008, when a large group of plaintiffs brought claims against New Jersey-based Chiquita under Torture Victim Protection Act. Their civil lawsuits came just after Chiquita pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $25 million fine for having made years of payments to the violent, right-wing terrorist organization known as Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC).  The claims of 14 plaintiffs were chosen as “bellwether cases,” a common technique used in mass torts to assist groups of litigants in predicting case outcomes.

The district court dismissed the bellwether plaintiffs’ claims at the summary judgment phase on the basis that plaintiffs had not presented enough admissible evidence to prove that AUC was involved in the death of their family members. Much of the evidence the plaintiffs hoped to submit was ruled inadmissible hearsay, and the evidence that was admissible was deemed “circumstantial” and “too speculative” by the trial court.

In a 104-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit sifted through dozens of the trial judge’s evidentiary rulings. The judges — Adalberto Jordan, a Barack Obama appointee, Kevin Newsom, a Donald Trump appointee, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes, a George H.W. Bush appointee — examined the factual underpinnings of each proffered piece of evidence. Ultimately, the panel affirmed the trial court’s rulings on some of the evidence, but reversed on others.

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Agnieszka Fryszman, plaintiffs’ counsel at Cohen Milstein, said that the ruling is “important for corporate accountability”:

“We are very pleased that the Eleventh Circuit carefully and thoroughly evaluated the district court’s approach to Plaintiffs evidence – in 104 pages – and unanimously reversed the lower court’s summary judgment decision. This is a very important case for corporate accountability. Chiquita has already admitted it paid over a million dollars to the AUC, a paramilitary group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. The Eleventh Circuit has now found that the Plaintiffs presented sufficient admissible evidence to show that the AUC killed their loved ones. After years of briefing these issues, we look forward to presenting our evidence to a jury and seeking justice for our clients.”

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