U.S. Judge Tosses $2.5 Million Punitive Damages in Dole Pesticide Case

March 12, 2008

A judge has reportedly dismissed the $2.5 million in punitive damages awarded by a jury to five farmhands who claim they were made sterile by a pesticide Dole used in Nicaraguan banana plantations in the 1970s.

If the ruling is upheld on appeal, it could preclude punitive damages from being awarded in future Dole cases and in other similar cases.

Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney wrote in her decision that punitive damages cannot be used to punish “a domestic corporation for injuries that occurred only in a foreign country.”

News of the decision was reported by the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal publication.

The case marked the first time a U.S. jury heard a lawsuit involving sterility and the pesticide known as DBCP.

The lawsuit claimed Dole used the pesticide long after its dangers were known and the company did not warn workers of the potential harm from exposure. DBCP now is banned worldwide.

A jury in November 2007 awarded the $2.5 million punitive damages to the farmworkers in addition to compensatory damages. The five workers still will split $1.58 million.

Rick McKnight, attorney for Westlake Village-based Dole Food Co., estimated that as many as 10,000 pesticide claims are pending worldwide for nearly $35 billion.

“These cases will dry up, and they should,” McKnight told the Times.

Meanwhile, plaintiff’s attorney Duane C. Miller told the Daily Journal he will appeal Judge Chaney’s ruling, but it will be quite a while — and many motions — before the case goes to trial again.

C. Michael Carter, executive vice president and general counsel for Dole, said the company already has set up a program for compensating hundreds of Honduran workers with similar claims and is trying to do the same thing in Nicaragua.

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