(Reuters) - Hundreds of banana farmers from Central America and South America will again have their day in court, after a U.S. appeals court on Friday revived six lawsuits accusing several big fruit and chemical companies of sickening them with a toxic pesticide.
By an 11-0 vote, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia revived claims by 228 farmers from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Panama against such companies as Chiquita Brands International, Del Monte Fresh Produce, Dole Food, Dow Chemical, Occidental Chemical and Shell Oil.
The court said a Delaware judge abused his discretion by dismissing the lawsuits instead of putting them on hold or transferring them, after another judge in Louisiana had rejected the same claims because they were brought there too late.
Circuit Judge Julio Fuentes called it “untenable” to throw out litigation that began in 1993, without any U.S. court reviewing the merits of the farmers’ claims.
The farmers are seeking damages from the defendants for exposure from the 1960s to 1980s to dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a pesticide they blame for causing sterility, kidney failure, elevated cancer risk, birth defects and other medical problems.
Most uses of DBCP were banned in the United States in 1977. The farmers sued on their own after a U.S. court rejected their bid to pursue a class action.
“I‘m extremely gratified that a court of this stature has finally seen the truth,” and that the farmers will “have their day in court, which is what they have asked for two decades,” their lawyer Scott Hendler said in a phone interview.
Other banana workers with similar claims have won multi-million dollar settlements. One case against Dole reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.
Lawyers for the companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Friday’s decision reversed an August 2015 ruling by a three-judge 3rd Circuit panel, which had upheld dismissals of the six lawsuits by U.S. District Judge Richard Andrews in Delaware.
Fuentes said he found merit to defense arguments that the farmers tried to “game the system” by shopping for a friendlier court after being shut out in Louisiana.
But he said dismissal would be unfair, given that the farmers were indifferent as to which court heard their claims, so long as they were heard.
Most of the lawsuits were returned to Delaware for further proceedings. Claims against Chiquita will move to New Jersey, where that company is incorporated.