Judge: missionaries' suit can proceed against Chiquita in Colombia killings
On Feb. 4, US District Judge Kenneth Marra in West Palm Beach, Fla., ruled that a lawsuit against banana giant Chiquita Brands brought by the families of North American missionaries kidnapped and killed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will not be dismissed.
The five workers with the New Tribes Mission were kidnapped and killed in separate incidents between 1993 and 1994 in Colombia's Urabá region, held for more than a year, and then executed between 1995 and 1996. After Chiquita pled guilty to criminal charges of materially supporting both the FARC and its arch enemy, the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), hundreds of Colombian victims of these groups sued the company in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Later, the missionaries' families also sued, under the recent Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows US victims to sue for acts of terrorism, regardless of where the acts occurred. The new ruling only affects the five missionaries' cases. Whether the thousands of cases brought by Colombian victims will go forward has not yet been decided.
While Chiquita admitted it paid illegal armed groups for protection, it claimed it didn't order the executions of innocent civilians and therefore can't be held responsible. Marra disagreed, writing: "It is not necessary that [the families] allege that Chiquita either planned, intended, or even knew about the particular act... The factual allegations of the [lawsuit] detailing extensively coordinated secret payments and fraudulent concealment, sufficiently support an inference of the conspiracy between Chiquita and [the killers]."
"While today's ruling will have no impact on the thousands of cases brought by Colombians against Chiquita Brands, the reasoning used by the Judge would apply very favorably to the Colombian cases," remarked Paul Wolf, who represents some 10,000 Colombian victims. "Specifically, Judge Marra did not require that the missionaries prove that Chiquita intended the murders occur—only that Chiquita knew of the effects its payments to the illegal groups were causing. He also wrote that it was not necessary for the missionaries to prove the link between the money paid, and each individual crime. These factors should make it much easier for the victims to prove their cases."
The cases brought by Colombian victims have remained unresolved for almost three years, since they were first filed in June of 2007. Recently, the court ruled that they would be permitted to amend their complaints, to include additional allegations based on information discovered since the first complaints were filed. Although this will significantly delay the resolution of these cases, it will also reduce the chance that the cases could be dismissed. (Asesorias Paul press release, West Palm Beach Post, Feb. 4)