A Los Angeles jury awarded $3.3 million to six workers on Monday who claimed they were left sterile by a pesticide used at a banana plantation in Nicaragua operated by Dole Fresh Fruit Co.
The workers' lawsuit accused Westlake Village, California-based Dole and Standard Fruit Co., now part of Dole, of negligence and fraudulent concealment while using the pesticide DBCP in the 1970s. The chemical was used to kill microscopic worms on the roots of the banana plants.
The suit also alleged that Dow Chemical Co. and Amvac Chemical Corp., manufacturers of the pesticide, "actively suppressed information about DBCP's reproductive toxicity," according to the lawsuit.
Amvac reached a $300,000 settlement in the case before the trial, according to spokeswoman Kelly Kozuma.
The six plaintiffs, whose awards ranged from $311,200 to $834,000, were among 12 workers suing Dole and Dow. Jurors in the Los Angeles County Superior Court trial which found that the two companies were a substantial factor in causing them harm.
Members of the seven-man, five-woman jury awarded the other six plaintiffs nothing after ruling that the companies did not substantially harm them.
The jury decided that Dole would be held responsible for the bulk of the payments.
The case is the first of five lawsuits involving at least 5,000 agricultural workers from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, who claim they were left sterile after being exposed to the pesticide. Other growers and manufacturers are named as defendants.
Duane Miller, the workers' attorney, had accused Dole of improperly applying the pesticide in amounts far exceeding guidelines. Miller claimed that Dole chose to spray the pesticide rather than injecting it into the soil or mixing it with ground water as its manufacturer recommended on the product's label.
Dole attorney Rick McKnight, meanwhile, said that the pesticide was only applied once or twice a year. He said the chemical was diluted with water, sprayed at night for 15 minutes and then the plants were washed with 56,000 gallons of water for more than an hour afterward. Dole wanted the chemical on the roots, not the leaves, he said.
Legal experts have said the case was significant because it raised the issue of whether multinational companies should be held accountable in the country where they are based or in the countries where they employ workers.
The lawsuit could open the door for others to file similar claims in the United States, where juries are known for awarding bigger judgments, experts said.
Jurors deliberated for about three weeks before announcing Friday that they had reached a verdict.
From the beginning of the testimony, which started in July, Miller appeared outnumbered by the team of Dole and Dow lawyers who took up more than two tables in the court room.
While Miller rarely cracked a smile or spoke with the media, attorneys for the two companies did their best to charm the jury and appeal to their sense of logic with numbers and computerized visuals to support their arguments.
Miller presented the workers' case with company letters from the 1960s and 1970s that he said showed Dole knew about the problems with DBCP, but wanted to continue using the chemical because the company feared not doing so would hurt their banana crops.
He also told compelling stories about poorly educated clients who did backbreaking work and were never able to fulfill dreams of having a family. Eleven of the 12 workers have no sperm in their bodies, he told the jury.
In his closing arguments, Miller told jurors that that the decision to have children was taken away from his clients.
"As adults, we decide whether we want children or not," Miller told jurors. "This is a case about a decision made for my clients instead of by my clients."
Miller was dealt setbacks by conflicting testimony that the companies' lawyers drew out of some of his clients.
For example, one worker repeatedly said the son he raised was his biological child, only to reverse himself later and claim that the boy was adopted. Another testified that he and his wife were unable to conceive after he got his banana farm job, but in an earlier videotaped deposition he said they had tried to conceive for a decade before he was ever exposed to DBCP.
"You do not have to have a college degree to answer these questions honestly," said Dole attorney Rick McKnight during his closing arguments.
McKnight also pointed out that a portion of the population, albeit a small one, is naturally sterile. He said a number of the workers had conditions that could have affected their fertility including gonorrhea, heavy drinking and, in one case, an extra chromosome.
Dow attorney Gennaro "Gus" Filice, meanwhile, said workers were not exposed to enough DBCP to have any effect. Experts who analyzed the exposure found it to have been insignificant, he said.