WESTLAKE VILLAGE, California – April 24, 2009 – On Thursday, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge dismissed the two remaining lawsuits brought by Nicaraguan plaintiffs pending in that court against Dole Food Company, Inc. and two other companies, in response to clear and convincing evidence that the plaintiffs, and certain of their attorneys, fabricated their claims, engaged in a long-running conspiracy to commit a fraud on the court, used threats of violence to frighten witnesses and suppress the truth, and conspired with corrupt Nicaraguan judges, depriving Dole and the other companies of due process.
“What occurred here is not just fraud on the court but blatant extortion of defendants,” declared Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney. “I cannot in good conscience allow this case to continue.”
The judge announced her ruling in open court late Thursday, dismissing with prejudice Mejia, et al. v. Dole Food Company, Inc., et al. and Rivera, et al. v. Dole Food Company, Inc., et al., which were brought on behalf of Nicaraguan citizens who claimed they were sterile as a result of exposure to the pesticide DBCP on Dole-contracted Nicaraguan banana farms over three decades ago.
In her ruling, Judge Chaney stated, “I find by clear and convincing evidence and even beyond reasonable doubt that each and every one of the plaintiffs in the Rivera and Mejia cases have presented fraudulent documents and actively participated in a conspiracy to defraud this court and extort money from defendants. That alone … is more than enough to dismiss these claims with prejudice.”
The Judge said that she would also make appropriate referrals to prosecutorial authorities and state bar associations in California and possibly other states.
In addition, the Judge indicated that next month she will conduct further proceedings to determine whether to impose monetary sanctions against plaintiffs or their counsel, or hold them in contempt of court.
Judge Chaney found that lawyers Juan Dominguez from Los Angeles and Antonio Ordenaña from Nicaragua and other lawyers conspired to recruit fraudulent plaintiffs—teaching them to lie about work on banana farms that they never did, assisting them in procuring false lab reports and other documents, and using intimidation and obstruction to try to prevent any investigation into this fraudulent scheme.
“Terminating sanctions is the only possible way to handle this situation,” the Court ruled.
“The actions of Juan Dominguez perverted this court’s ability to deliver justice to those parties that come before it,” the Judge said. The court also found “by clear and convincing evidence that both Dominguez and Ordeñana directed people to hurt investigators on site and hurt anybody that came forward to testify about illegal schemes brewing in Nicaragua.”
The Court’s ruling came at the end of a three-day hearing, one day of which was held behind closed doors to protect these witnesses. Judge Chaney described a “pervasive atmosphere of fear and extreme danger” that threatened these witnesses and required extraordinary measures to protect them.
Citing U.S. State Department country reports as well as clear and convincing evidence introduced during the hearing, Judge Chaney found that corruption in the Nicaraguan judicial system has perverted justice in connection with all DBCP cases emanating from Nicaragua, as a result of “groups of corrupt Nicaraguan judges devouring bribes based on trumped up allegations and facts.”
“The Court’s ruling and findings confirm that Dole, its co-defendants and the Superior Court itself are victims of a wide-ranging fraud and a conspiracy and obstruction of justice,” said C. Michael Carter, Dole’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel. “These plaintiffs and their counsel made a mockery of our judicial system by bringing these fraudulent claims against Dole and this fraudulent behavior and conspiracy implicates other cases pending in the United States and in Nicaragua. None of this illegal conduct would have come to light had it not been for the courageous witnesses in Nicaragua who came forward to testify despite threats of violence and significant and substantial risk to their own health and safety and their families.”
Dole’s lead trial attorney, Scott A. Edelman of the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, added: “The fraud on the court was blatant, and plaintiffs withdrew the one and only defense they had previously offered – bribery of witnesses by Dole’s investigators – because they had absolutely no evidence to support it. Two of Dole’s investigators took the stand on Thursday and conclusively refuted plaintiffs’ prior allegations that witnesses had been bribed to disclose the plaintiffs’ fraudulent enterprise and described the climate of fear and violence surrounding the DBCP cases.
Dole is also challenging, on fraud on the court grounds, the validity of a 2008 verdict obtained by another group of Nicaraguan DBCP plaintiffs, who were also represented Mr. Dominguez and Mr. Ordeñana, in the case of Tellez, et al. v. Dole Food Company, et al. The Tellez case, which is now pending on appeal in California, was tried before a Los Angeles jury in Judge Chaney’s courtroom last year.
Yesterday, Judge Chaney ruled that the fraudulent conspiracy that prompted the court to terminate the Mejia case also “contaminated each and every one of the plaintiffs in the Tellez trial.” Judge Chaney further indicated that “had I known about [the fraud]” during the Tellez case, “I would have acted differently,” but that the fraud “couldn’t have been raised because the evidence had not come to a head.”
Judge Chaney also found evidence that the fraud had contaminated the judgment in yet another pending case, Osorio, et al. v. Dole Food Company, et al., which is currently pending before a federal district court in Miami. In Osorio, Dole and other companies are opposing on grounds of fraud efforts by Nicaraguan plaintiffs to enforce a $98 million DBCP-related judgment rendered by a Nicaraguan judge; a federal judge suspended that case pending the fraud proceedings in Mejia.
Yesterday, Judge Chaney found that there was clear and convincing evidence that U.S. and Nicaraguan plaintiffs’ lawyers had “conspired with Nicaraguan judges to fix DBCP cases by manufacturing false lab reports.” Judge Chaney specifically found that Nicaraguan Judge Socorro Toruño, who issued the Osorio judgment, had earlier held a meeting with a number of U.S. and Nicaraguan law firms and laboratories, and directed the participants to obtain falsified medical reports for use in trials. At that meeting, which included the U.S. Provost Umphrey law firm that obtained the Osorio judgment, the Nicaraguan judge threatened “jail time” for anyone who talked. Judge Chaney characterized this scheme to obtain fraudulent judgments and then seek to enforce them in U.S. courts as “extortion.”
Dole, with 2008 net revenues of $7.6 billion, is the world’s largest producer and marketer of high-quality fresh fruit and fresh vegetables, and is the leading producer of organic bananas. Dole markets a growing line of packaged and frozen foods and is a produce industry leader in nutrition education and research.
This release contains “forward-looking statements,” within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 that involve a number of risks and uncertainties. Forward looking statements, which are based on management’s current expectations, are generally identifiable by the use of terms such as “may,” “will,” “expects,” “believes,” “intends,” “anticipates” and similar expressions. The potential risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied herein include weather-related phenomena; market responses to industry volume pressures; product and raw materials supplies and pricing; energy supply and pricing; changes in interest and currency exchange rates; economic crises and security risks in developing countries; international conflict; and quotas, tariffs and other governmental actions. Further information on the factors that could affect Dole’s financial results is included in its SEC filings, including its Annual Report on Form 10-K.