September 07, 2022

The Eleventh Circuit has revived a bunch of bellwether cases in a massive multidistrict litigation alleging Chiquita Brands International funded a Colombian paramilitary group that killed thousands of people, ruling on Tuesday that a Florida district court wrongly precluded the cases from going to trial.

In a 104-page unanimous published opinion, the court reversed much of a summary judgment ruling from September 2019 in favor of Chiquita Brands International Inc. and a handful of its executives in 12 bellwether cases in the Southern District of Florida.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Eleventh Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan said U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra wrongly rejected some of the plaintiffs' evidence that the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The AUC received more than $1.7 million from Chiquita between 1997 and 2004, when Colombia was in the midst of a civil war, case records show.

"We hold that most of the bellwether plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to withstand summary judgment with respect to whether the AUC was responsible for the deaths of their decedents," the court said.

It is a tremendous victory for the bellwether plaintiffs whose cases have been revived and the thousands of other plaintiffs in the MDL whose cases hinge on the success of the cases that could now proceed to trial, attorneys for the plaintiffs say.

. . .

The court reversed the summary judgment ruling in respect of eight bellwether cases, vacated it in two cases for further consideration of evidence on remand, and affirmed in one. It also dismissed the plaintiff appeal in one case and affirmed the lower court's denial of motions by the defendants to dismiss certain claims, including those against Chiquita executives under the Torture Victim Protection Act.

Chiquita pled guilty in 2007 to a charge by the federal government over its funding of the AUC, case records show. That admission sparked a flurry of civil cases against the Florida-headquartered fruit producer and distributor by the relatives of people allegedly murdered by the AUC.

. . .

The plaintiffs are represented by Paul D. Wolf of the Law Offices of Paul David Wolf, Paul L. Hoffman and John C. Washington of Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP, Agnieszka M. Fryszman, Benjamin D. Brown, Theodore J. Leopold, Leslie M. Kroeger and Diana L. Martin of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, Marco Simons, Richard Herz and Marissa Vahlsing of EarthRights International, Judith Brown Chomsky of the Law Offices of Judith Brown Chomsky, John de Leon of the Law Offices of Chavez & De Leon PA, John Scarola of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley PA, James K. Green of James K. Green PA, Terrence P. Collingsworth of International Rights Advocates, Jonathan C. Reiter of the Law Firm of Jonathan C. Reiter, Stephen J. Golembe of Stephen J. Golembe & Associates PA and William J. Wichmann of the Law Offices of William J. Wichmann PA.

Read the article on Law360.