Judge Dismisses Farm Workers’ Toxic Herbicide Injury Claims

A sugar cane worker near Clewiston, Florida. (Florida Department of State Archive)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – Farm workers who say they fell ill from herbicide exposure in Dominican cane fields lost a battle to keep their injury claims in Florida state court, a venue they hoped would be a bastion of impartiality for their case.

Presiding Palm Beach County Judge Cymonie Rowe found that the plaintiffs lacked specific evidence to back up their argument that the Dominican judiciary was too corrupt to field the lawsuit.

The judge ruled that Florida was not the right forum for the case given that the plaintiffs reside in the Dominican Republic and allegedly suffered their herbicide-related illnesses there.

The plaintiffs had alleged that their exposure to herbicides in and around Dominican sugar-cane fields caused them to suffer from nausea, convulsions, allergic reactions, blurred vision, respiratory illness and behavioral abnormalities. Most of them were employed by Central Romana, a Dominican company in defendant Fanjul Corp.’s sugar production empire, according to the lawsuit.

Central Romana allegedly neglected to provide the farm workers with adequate safety equipment and training to apply the herbicides. Among the chemicals cited in the lawsuit are the controversial organic arsenate MSMA, glyphosate, diuron, and paraquat, a chemical that has been banned in many countries due to its high acute toxicity.

Fanjul Corp.’s attorney, Brooks Ricca, told Courthouse News that it would have been a logistical nightmare if the case had been allowed to move forward in Florida.

“When you have litigation like this, you have to depose plaintiffs, doctors, witnesses. It would be a practical impossibility,” Ricca said, adding that some of the lawsuit exhibits were in Spanish. “I couldn’t imagine the case litigated here.”

The more-than 40 plaintiffs had been fighting to keep the case stateside, for fear that Central Romana and other sugar-cane growers would wield influence to squash the lawsuit if it were handled in the Dominican Republic.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer Robert Vance argued that Central Romana is one of the largest and most powerful landholders in the Dominican Republic. “The notion that the plaintiffs would have a fair opportunity to fully litigate their claims” in the country was “naive” given that the judiciary is subject to political and corporate influence, he said. Vance pointed to a past environmental pollution case, Dominican Republic v. AES Corp., wherein the country sued American companies in a U.S. court rather than at home, alleging in part that there were death threats and government retaliation against a Dominican district attorney who opposed the companies’ industrial waste dumping.

Judge Rowe appeared unswayed. She called the farm workers’ claims of pervasive Dominican court corruption “nonspecific.”

Her decision to dismiss the farm workers’ lawsuit was issued on a forum-non-conveniens motion filed by co-defendant Biesterfield U.S., a chemical company which purportedly distributed several of the herbicides listed in the farm workers’ complaint. Biesterfeld’s case-law-heavy motion said the lawsuit had “no substantial connection to Florida.”

Fanjul Corp. had its own motion to dismiss pending at the time Judge Rowe handed down the order. Both defendants noted that the lawsuit contained several counts under Dominican law.

Vance told Courthouse News that he plans to file for rehearing in the wake of the dismissal. He said he still wants to challenge Fanjul Corp.’s separate dismissal motion.

The plaintiffs remained anonymous throughout the litigation. They said that if their identities were revealed, they could be subject to violent retribution or kicked out of the sugar-cane villages (company-owned “bateyes”) where many of them lived with their families. The plaintiffs alleged that life on the bateyes was unforgiving, and that they made less than $10 a day working for Central Romana and other growers. Many of the plaintiffs’ Haitian background relegates them to a position as second-class citizens in Dominican society, stifling their chances of being treated fairly in Dominican courts, they claim.

Fanjul Corp.’s court filings aggressively sought to distance the West Palm Beach-based company from the herbicide injury claims. Held by the wealthy Fanjul family, the company argued that the plaintiffs failed to establish that it had significant legal control over Central Romana. The company further contended that the plaintiffs’ claims were improperly intermingled and lumped together in the initial complaint.

“This matter is not a class action,” attorney Ricca writes in Fanjul Corp.’s motion. “Each individual Plaintiff must have their own, separate basis for each claim. … The instant complaint joins all 41 plaintiffs together as if they were a monolithic group.”

Attempts by the defense team to investigate all the claims would have been futile due to the fact that the plaintiffs remained nameless, Ricca argued.

A related civil action is pending in Pennsylvania state court. It contains nearly identical allegations from the same plaintiff base as the Florida case, though additional defendants were listed. The Pennsylvania court dismissed the counts against Biesterfeld on Aug. 30, citing lack of personal jurisdiction. Several other defendants, including Drexel Chemical and Inicia Ltd., secured dismissal orders earlier this summer.

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