(Beyond Pesticides, June 2, 2010) After decades-long litigation over the use of the toxic pesticide dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, in the 1970’s which has been linked to sterility and has since been banned, Dole Food Co. is proposing new settlements for farm workers claiming they were injured by exposure to the pesticide. A request has been filed by lawyers for Dole in the Los Angeles Superior Court asking that nearly 1,500 Honduran farm workers who are suing Dole be allowed to drop out of those suits and settle their claims out of court under an existing program arranged by the company and Honduran government officials. This could potentially end years of legal action inexpensively for Dole while providing compensation to workers quickly, however some people view this plan as a way for the company to back out of its responsibilities to former plantation workers.
The pesticide DBCP was used by workers from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama to kill worm infestations in the trees’ roots. In the U.S., DBCP was used as a soil fumigant and nematocide on over 40 different crops until 1977. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), DBCP causes male reproductive problems, including low sperm count, and is a “probable human carcinogen.” From 1977 to 1979, EPA suspended registration for all DBCP-containing products except for use on pineapples in Hawaii. In 1985, EPA issued intent to cancel all registrations for DBCP, including use on pineapples. Subsequently, the use of existing stocks of DBCP was prohibited. Dole has since been hit with lawsuits from tens of thousands of former workers from that country as well as Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Guatemala, the Ivory Coast and Hawaii.
According to the Los Angeles Business Journal, Dole developed a settlement plan in 2006 called the Honduran Worker Program to pay workers who can prove that they worked on a Dole plantation and became sterile from $1,500 to $5,800 in exchange for agreeing not to sue the company. If the workers are suing Dole, they can’t participate in the program; however the company is now asking the court for permission to accept workers into the program even if they are suing Dole, thus allowing workers to surrender their right to sue.
Some are skeptical of Dole’s efforts, including Benton Musslewhite, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys: “It’s just a deal to get Dole off the hook.” He believes the program is an attempt to exploit uneducated men and cheat them out of possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in trial damages, and plans to argue that the pesticide lawsuits should proceed and the program not be expanded.
Dole wants to replicate the Honduran settlement model in order to settle claims in other countries where it used DBCP and is facing a total of 2,300 claims from foreign workers in state court. Though it is unclear how many claims Dole is facing worldwide estimates run into the thousands. Under the settlement, the company will pay the claimant $100 in exchange for his signature on a release of all claims against the fruit company. Then the worker must definitively prove that he was exposed to DBCP during his employment and submit to “a thorough medical questionnaire and physical exam,” according to Dole’s court filing. Depending on the level of sterility, the worker will receive a payment of as much as 110,000 Honduran lempiras, or roughly $5,800.
Mr. Musslewhite argues the program severely disadvantages men who are suffering significant medical problems. The workers, most of whom have little formal education, have to go without legal representation, submit to invasive medical tests and prove 30-year-old facts to a multinational corporation armed with high-paid lawyers, doctors and other representatives. He says that only a handful of applicants have walked away with any kind of settlement, and according to Dole’s records included in the filing, the company interviewed more than 1,000 applicants for the program, of which just 58 had been paid as of March 2009, the most recent date for which data was available.
Related Daily News Coverage:
U.S. Court Reverses Judgement Against Dole and Dow Chemical for Sterile Banana Workers, Oct 27, 2009
Nicaraguan Farmworkers Awarded $3.3 Million in U.S. Pesticide Poisoning Case, Nov 8, 2007
Farmworkers’ Lawsuits Claimed Pesticides Made Them Sterile, July 12, 2007
Costa Rican Workers Left Sterile by Pesticide Sue Dole, Shell, and Dow Chemical, Dec 2, 2004
Nicaraguan Banana Workers Will Have Their Day in U.S. Court, Jan 24, 2003
Source: Los Angeles Business Journal