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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: International Ambulance Chasers

March 27, 2008; Page A14

March has been a rough month for the tort bar, and not only because two of its standard-bearers — Dickie Scruggs and Mel Weiss — have both copped to felonies. A judge in California has put a damper on the efforts of plaintiffs lawyers to drum up lawsuits abroad and have them tried in the U.S.

In a case we first wrote about last summer, a state court in Los Angeles found itself adjudicating a lawsuit brought by farm workers who alleged that exposure to the pesticide DBPC in the 1970s had left them sterile. What made the case noteworthy is that the plaintiffs are all foreign nationals with no links to the U.S. civil justice system. Prior to the trial, they’d never set foot on American soil. The claims brought on their behalf concerned conduct that took place in Nicaragua more than 30 years ago.

Nevertheless, in November a jury found that Dole Food, which ran the Nicaraguan banana plantations where DBPC was used, was liable. In addition to compensatory damages, it awarded the farm workers $2.5 million in punitive damages. But on March 7, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney overturned the jury verdict and threw out the entire punitive award.

The case is being closely watched because it’s the first involving DBPC to make it to U.S. trial. Pending appeal, the workers will still receive compensatory damages. Still, the ruling on punitive damages undercuts other claims in the pipeline.

There are currently 22 additional DBCP cases pending against Dole in the U.S., involving about 7,500 claimants from foreign countries, including Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras. Other companies, including Dow Chemical, Shell Occidental, Amvac, Del Monte and Chiquita, are named in most of the claims. And during the trial, the plaintiffs lawyers were aggressively recruiting more claimants. Dole estimates that the claims pending world-wide total some $35 billion, and plaintiffs lawyers are spoiling for another asbestos-like bonanza. Fortunately, Judge Chaney may have upset their plans.

“Any punitive damages would be so arbitrary as to be grossly excessive and thus violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” she wrote, citing recent Supreme Court rulings. Judge Chaney added that there is no legal authority “that endorses punitive damages against a domestic corporation for injuries that occurred only in a foreign country” or “an award of punitive damages 30 years after the defendant’s misconduct.”

DBPC kills the microscopic worms that eat the roots of banana plants, and it was not only approved for use at the time in Nicaragua but also in the U.S., Europe, South America and Australia. There is no scientific evidence that exposure to the chemical in the amounts needed to protect crops causes sterility or any other human health problems. Looking at all of this, Judge Chaney wrote that even “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the evidence compels a verdict for defendants as a matter of law.” In other words, the punitive award wasn’t tossed out on a technicality.

American courts are crowded enough without the tort bar’s international ambulance chasers heading to Central America to stir up litigation. So kudos to Judge Chaney for applying both the law and common sense. Judicial resources are finite, and clogging the courts with claims that don’t belong leaves less room for valid claims brought by Americans. and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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