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6 Sep 2022

Kayla Goggin, Courthouse News Service (USA)

11th Circuit revives lawsuits accusing Chiquita of funding Colombian terrorists

The 11th Circuit partially overturned a Florida federal judge’s ruling in favor of Chiquita Brands International, which was sued by people whose family members were killed by a Colombian paramilitary group allegedly financially supported by the company.

For more than a decade, the victims’ relatives have waged a legal battle in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to hold the banana giant accountable for funding a right-wing terrorist group they claim kidnapped, tortured and murdered their loved ones during a civil war...

The AUC was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Secretary of State. Chiquita pleaded guilty in 2007 to engaging in transactions with a specially designated global terrorist by making payments to the group in regions where the company had banana-producing operations. Chiquita was ordered to pay a $25 million fine.

Lemus and hundreds of others sued Chiquita and some of its executives under Colombian law and under the Torture Victim Protection Act in 2008, alleging that Chiquita’s financial support of the AUC led to the group’s murder of their family members.

The plaintiffs claimed the company funneled $1.7 million to the AUC even though it was aware that the group was a violent terrorist organization.

Ten bellwether cases were consolidated out of the original actions in Florida federal court, where U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled in favor of the company in 2019. Marra found that the families failed to link their loved ones’ deaths to the AUC.

The appeal before the 11th Circuit challenged several evidentiary rulings by the district court which led to a victory for Chiquita.

In a 104-page ruling breaking down the lower court’s findings, a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court unanimously agreed that some of the evidence presented by the plaintiffs should be excluded but ultimately rejected Marra’s finding in favor of Chiquita.

The panel bristled at Marra’s determination that the circumstantial evidence proffered by the plaintiffs about the frequency and manner of the killings in certain geographic areas was not enough to establish a connection with the AUC...

Writing on behalf of the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan opined that while the evidence from the plaintiffs may not be sufficient on its own to establish the AUC’s involvement in the killings, the statistical evidence offered by their expert is enough to get their claims in front of a jury...