Fraud found in Dole banana lawsuit

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: It's not clear who's been lying and who's been telling the truth. What is clear is that bogus has been introduced in lawsuits that Nicaraguan peasants have filed against the fruit and vegetable company Dole. The lawsuits have been brought on behalf of thousands of Nicaraguans who worked on Dole's banana plantations � that was in the 1960s and 70s. The workers claim that a pesticide Dole used made them sterile. That chemical has proved dangerous but many of the sterility tests introduced as evidence were fake. Steve Stecklow reports on the case in today's Wall Street Journal. He says that the story really began more than 30 years ago.

STEVE STECKLOW: In 1977 it was discovered at a manufacturing plant for this pesticide, known as DBCT, that it was causing male workers to become sterile. And by 1979 the EPA essentially banned all uses, including bananas. Dole chose to keep using it however and Dole continued to use it down in Nicaragua until 1980 even though it had been definitively linked to male sterility.

MULLINS: Why did they still use it then?

STECKLOW: Well it was very effective and also Dole said that there was no indication that it caused problems for agricultural workers and that's been the source of litigation almost ever since. I mean we're now something � 30 years beyond � and they're still getting hit with lawsuits because of that decision.

MULLINS: Okay so talk about some of these individual workers on the banana plantations who have been filing, as you said, many lawsuits. Give us an example of one particular worker who you spoke with.

STECKLOW: Well Marco Sergio Medrano is probably a typical worker � poorly educated, illiterate. Says he worked on banana plantations something like 30 years ago and like thousands of other Nicaraguans became a plaintiff in lawsuits against Dole.

MULLINS: This is the guy who's 49 years old who worked on these plantations. What was he doing?

STECKLOW: Well what he says his job was he was an assistant to the irrigator which meant that he was directly involved in spraying this pesticide on the banana plants. Dole disputes that. I mean they claim that a lot of these people never even worked on banana plantations. But again Madrano insists that he did and that was what his job was.

MULLINS: Okay so he hears this ad on the radio saying look if you worked on a banana plantation for Dole you can be part of this lawsuit. Who put out the ad and then who ended up representing him?

STECKLOW: The radio ad was financed by a Los Angeles personal injury lawyer named Juan Dominguez and he has hired a local lawyer down in Chinandega to essentially find plaintiffs for this case and Mr. Madrano responded to one of those ads.

MULLINS: And how many other people responded?

STECKLOW: Thousands. As of now there's over 13,000 plaintiffs in all the cases. They're not all Dominguez's cases but many of them are. I think Dominguez has over 4000. In fact the number of plaintiffs is larger than the actual number of banana workers who ever worked on Dole operated plants. That doesn't seem to be in much dispute.

MULLINS: So what is primarily in dispute here? I mean what is the larger picture of what's going on in all of these suits?

STECKLOW: Well the larger picture is that no one seems to dispute that there was massive fraud in recruiting plaintiffs � that there's too many of them. That a series of American lawyers went down to Nicaragua, kind of set up shop, hired local council, and started recruiting them. But they recruited so many of them that it's not really plausible that they all worked on the farms let alone would have been exposed to the pesticide. So unfortunately for those peasants who actually may have been exposed and become sterile, all of the cases now seem to be in doubt because there was so much fraud going on.

MULLINS: So what's the status of all these cases now?

STECKLOW: Well unfortunately for a lot of the plaintiffs down in Nicaragua the status is really in limbo. A judge in California ruled in June. She threw out two of the cases based on what she described as massive fraud including fake sterility tests. And now Dole lawyers are trying to use this to toss out dozens and dozens of other cases that are either in the United States or down in Nicaragua.

MULLINS: So who are, to the extent that we know, who are the victims and who are the culprits?

STECKLOW: Well I think the victims really are the peasants who may have been hurt by this who will probably never see any money and really have been kind of exploited all along the way. And that's really the real tragedy here. I mean the judge in California said that the sad thing is that people with legitimate claims are likely never to win anything because no one's ever going to believe them given the magnitude of the fraud that went on.

MULLINS: Alright thank you for telling us the story. Steve Stecklow is the deputy bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal in Boston. His article about fraud by trial lawyers in these pesticide lawsuits appears in the Wall Street Journal, today's edition. Thank you very much for telling us this story Steve.

STECKLOW: My pleasure. Thank you Lisa.