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First Banana Workers Get US Court Trial

Posted Jul 9, 2007 1:00 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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It has been some 30 years since thousands of banana workers in Central America claim to have been exposed to carcinogenic pesticides on plantations there. Intended to kill worms infesting the roots of banana trees, the pesticides dripped from the leaves onto unprotected workers and leached into the water supply when it rained, they contend.

But only this week, in a legal first, is one of the cases some 5,000 workers have filed against the United States-based companies that owned the Central American banana plantations and manufactured the pesticides about to go to trial, reports the Associated Press. Jury selection is scheduled to begin tomorrow in Los Angeles in a California case contending that Dole Fresh Fruit Co. negligently exposed workers to DBCP, a pesticide that allegedly made them sterile, and that the manufacturers, Dow Chemical Co. and Amvac Chemical Corp., knew about the danger it posed as far back as the 1950s but suppressed this information.

"This is the first time any case for a banana worker has come before a U.S. court," says Duane Miller, one of the plaintiffs lawyers involved. Experts say it could set an important precedent holding American-based companies responsible for injuries to workers in foreign locations.

The Dole suit now headed to trial is one of a number of U.S. cases brought by plaintiffs in the Philippines and the Ivory Coast, as well as five Central American countries, against three fruit companies and at least three manufacturer defendants, according to a May article in the Los Angeles Times.

Bringing the litigation in the U.S. has been an arduous process. Initially, American corporate defendants opposed attempts to bring suit here, so claims were filed in the countries where the exposure occurred, and lengthy delays ensued. Settlements have been made by defendants in foreign cases, the Los Angeles Times reports, although the companies involved in the suits deny liability. Following legislation that made at least some Central American countries unfriendly forums for corporate defendants in banana worker cases, Dow and Dole stopped opposing efforts to bring such cases to trial in U.S. courts, the Times says.

"Workers bringing these claims rotated jobs often or changed jobs altogether with enough frequency that long-term exposure would have been fairly unusual, and it is not likely that there is any injury whatsoever related to DBCP," wrote Scot Wheeler, a Dow spokesman, in an e-mail to AP. There are no "generally accepted" scientific studies showing that DBCP causes sterility, he says.

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