Courts - California Nicaraguans could lose $2.3 million court award

By Linda Deutsch

Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Six Nicaraguan banana workers who Dole Food Co. attorneys have accused of fraud got a chance to explain their position on Tuesday when their attorneys spoke before a California judge at a hearing.

The men, who claimed in the lawsuit that exposure to pesticides made them sterile, received $2.3 million after a 2007 jury verdict. But the judge in the case is considering reversing the award.

Attorneys for Dole on Monday suggested that the men were part of a "fraud army" coached in their testimony by an American and Nicaraguan lawyer with a plan to extort billions from the giant food company in multiple lawsuits.

Judge Victoria Chaney, who has been elevated to the state appellate court since she presided over the 2007 trial, has returned to Los Angeles Superior Court to consider dismissing the verdict. The case is closely related to one that Chaney dismissed last summer on grounds of fraud.

Chaney cited an "outrageous and profound" conspiracy to extort Dole with false claims by purported plantation workers who said they had been rendered sterile by exposure to the pesticide DBCP in the 1970s.

Testimony showed the men were not plantation workers and were recruited by Los Angeles attorney Juan J. Dominguez and a Nicaraguan associate to lie. She said they planned to extort billions of dollars from Dole in multiple lawsuits across the country.

Dole attorneys Theodore Boutrous and Scott Edelman presented arguments and videotapes Monday showing the six plaintiffs reversing their deposition testimony at trial after apparent coaching by lawyers.

One man who said he was the father of his son later denied the boy under oath, seeking to prove he was sterile.

The alleged fraud was not uncovered until after the case of Tellez vs. Dole was concluded and a jury awarded the men $2.3 million.

Boutrous told the judge that the plaintiffs in that case were "the first foot soldiers" in an army organized in Nicaragua by Dominguez and his Nicaraguan associate to defraud Dole.

Witnesses in last year's hearings said that the lawyers trained recruits in how to lie and took them on tours of abandoned banana plantations to see what it would have been like to work there in the 1970s.

In court, Dole attorneys played videos of Dominguez exhorting crowds in Nicaragua to join what he called a war against the Westlake Village, Calif., company. He told them the Tellez case would be "the bellwether" to determine if they could win in American courts.

Boutrous noted in his argument that the jury in that case never saw evidence of fraud because it had not yet been documented.

"If they had known about witnesses lying and denying their own children it would have been a far different trial," he said.

He said that the 14,000 plaintiffs recruited by Dominguez "vastly outstrips" the number of people who actually worked on Dole banana farms.

Edelman also showed charts tracking what he said were fake sperm tests arranged for the men. One man had two tests in Nicaragua that showed he had zero sperm. A test in the United States showed he had 20 million sperm.

Dominguez is a personal injury lawyer whose face has appeared on bus advertisements and billboards in Los Angeles. Chaney has referred him to the State Bar of California and to federal prosecutors for investigation.

Neither Dominquez nor the six plaintiffs were in court for the hearing. The new plaintiffs' lawyer, Steve Condi, appeared for them.

Published: Wed, May 12, 2010