MIAMI (AP) — Chiquita Brands International asked a federal appeals court Thursday to dismiss lawsuits filed against the produce giant by relatives of thousands of Colombians killed in a bloody civil war, contending the cases do not belong in a U.S. court.
John Hall, attorney for Charlotte, N.C.-based Chiquita, told a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that any legal action by the relatives should be pursued in Colombia.
The lawsuits accuse Chiquita, which for decades had huge banana plantations in Colombia, of assisting in the killings by paying $1.7 million to a right-wing paramilitary group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. Chiquita has insisted it only made the payments because of threats against it by the group known as the AUC — the Spanish acronym for United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
"There is nothing to suggest that plaintiffs can't bring similar claims in Colombia," Hall said. U.S. law, he added, is "focused on the site of the conduct, not the identity of the defendant."
The Colombians' lawyer, Paul Hoffman, countered that the cases belonged in the U.S. because Chiquita is based in this country and made decisions about the payments at its headquarters, at the time in Cincinnati. Additional proof, Hoffman said, is Chiquita's 2007 guilty plea to U.S. criminal charges over the payments, which resulted in a $25 million fine.
"I can't say it any other way — it was mass murder," Hoffman said. "How could that not touch and concern the United States?"
The judges did not indicate when they would rule, a process that can take several months. Chiquita is appealing a decision not to dismiss the lawsuits by West Palm Beach-based U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra, before whom lawsuits filed in several states were consolidated in 2008. Damages could reach into the billions of dollars.