Labor & Employment

Tort Trial Here for Deaths in Colombia

War-torn Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a labor union member: Well over 2,000 trade unionists have been killed there since 1991, according to Amnesty International. The killings are apparently at least in part attributable to a four-decades-old war between leftist guerrillas, the government and right-wing paramilitaries.

But there’s also one other entity that allegedly bears some responsibility for three of these deaths—an Alabama coal-mining company that is now at trial in a civil human rights suit in federal court in Birmingham, according to the Miami Herald. Drummond Co., which operates near La Jagua, Colombia, had links to paramilitaries who killed three company union leaders in 2001, the plaintiffs contend. The company, however, says it has no connection to the paramilitaries, and denies the allegations made in the suit.

Although the Herald says the case here is “the first time a U.S. company is being held accountable in a courtroom for human rights abuses abroad,” a similar claim was made earlier this month by a lawyer headed to trial in state court in California seeking to hold an American company liable for Central American workers’ alleged exposure to harmful pesticides. (See previous post.) Nonetheless, the cutting-edge cases are clearly unusual, and, especially if successful for the plaintiffs, may signal a developing trend toward filing tort cases in the U.S. over alleged mistreatment of workers abroad.

Testimony in the Drummond trial began this week, and cast a Colombian union president who was killed while working for the company as a thorn in its side, the Birmingham News reports today. “Lawyers for the Colombian union and families of the dead men attempted to show Drummond harbored an anti-union bias,” the article continues, “and that the labor leaders were threats to the company. The families and union sued Drummond in 2002, saying the company commissioned the killings by paying right-wing militiamen.”

Drummond says the three killings were tragic but unrelated to the company’s operations, simply another casualty of the ongoing fighting among Colombian factions.

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