UPDATE 2-Judge throws out Dole "bananeros" cases, citing fraud
* Decision casts doubt on $2 bln in judgments in other cases
* "Pervasive consipracy" behind two pesticide lawsuits- judge
* Judge says scheme reached Nicaraguan judiciary (Adds byline, details from hearing, background)
By Gina Keating
LOS ANGELES, April 23 (Reuters) - A California judge on Thursday threw out two pesticide lawsuits against Dole Food Co and other companies by plaintiffs claiming to be banana farm workers, citing a "pervasive conspiracy" by plaintiffs' attorneys and Nicaraguan judges.
The ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney puts in doubt $2 billion in pending judgments in dozens of similar lawsuits. Chaney also said she would refer the matter to states' bar associations and to prosecutorial agencies.
The plantiffs, known as bananeros, have won judgments against Dole in Nicaraguan courts after claiming they were made sterile by the chemical DBCP, which was banned in the United States but was used by Dole to control fungus. The other defendants were Dow Chemical (DOW.N) and AMVAC.
Privately-owned Dole, is the world's largest producer of fruits and vegetables.
Chaney made the ruling after a three-day hearing on fraud allegations that cropped up during the first of about 40 toxic tort lawsuits to be tried in her court involving thousands of plaintiffs from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras and the Ivory Coast .
"What a sad commentary that somebody thought that they were free to bring this fraud in the U.S. courts," Chaney said. "What a sad commentary for individuals who will not be able to come to this court or any court for redress of wrongs that have been committed against them."
A federal judge in Miami, who is considering whether to enforce a $97 million judgment, behind which sits another judgment for $800 million won by bananeros in a Nicaraguan court, had been waiting for the outcome of the California fraud hearing to rule on his case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Robinson, a major fraud prosecutor who acted as lead counsel in the Justice Department's case against the Milberg Weiss law firm, attended the hearing but had no comment about whether an investigation had been opened.
FRAUD AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS
More than 10,000 plaintiffs have brought cases against Dole and other defendants over exposure to DBCP in U.S. and Nicaraguan courts, Dole attorney Scott Edelman said in his closing argument on Thursday.
Chaney found evidence "that the proof of employment and medical evidence presented to me that came out of Nicaragua was manufactured and not honestly so by certain individuals in Nicaragua," Chaney said.
"I find that there is and was a pervasive conspiracy to defraud American and Nicaraguan courts, to defraud the defendants, to extort money from not just these defendants -- but all manufacturers of DBCP and all growers or operators of plantations in Nicaragua between 1970 and 1980," she said.
Plaintiffs attorneys Juan Dominguez of Los Angeles and Antonio Ordenana of Nicaragua, accused Dole of bribing witnesses but put on almost no defense to the allegations during the hearing.
They did not appear at the hearing but their co-counsel Mike Axline, presented little evidence at the hearing. He had no comment after the hearing.
Edelman argued during the Los Angeles hearing this week that a special Nicaraguan law passed in 2001 to address the pesticide cases has brought "intense political pressure to bear on judges ... who have ceded to that pressure."
Edelman said Special Law 364 also has spawned an industry in which local attorneys have recruited thousands of men to pose as bananeros in a wave of lawsuits that hit U.S. companies, including Dole, Shell Chemical and Dow in recent years.
Edelman showed videotaped testimony from witnesses who said they were approached or recruited by plaintiffs attorneys to pose as bananeros, promised rich rewards, and threatened with harm if they revealed the scheme to Dole investigators.
The lawyers charged the plaintiffs on a monthly basis to attend seminars where they were trained to be convincing as banana workers, Edelman said.
But problems began surfacing in depositions with Dole's lawyers and medical exams, which resulted in more than half of the plaintiffs in the three lead cases being dismissed from the cases by their own lawyers, Edelman said.
"These plaintiffs are unable to testify to basic farm facts ... they just hadn't studied hard enough," Edelman told the court.
The cases are Mejia v. Dole Food Co et al, BC340079, and Rivera v. Dole Food Co et al, BC379820, in Los Angeles Superior Court. (Editing by Lincoln Feast)
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