The firm: Conrad & Scherer
The lawyers: William R. Scherer Jr., lead; William J. Wichmann; William R. Scherer III
The case: Carrizosa, et al. v. Chiquita Brands International Inc., et al.
Family members of 22 people killed by a Colombian terrorist group allegedly funded by Chiquita Brands International and other banana producers sued Chiquita Brands in June under the Alien Tort Claims Act.
A 3-year-old child, banana workers and teachers were among those killed in the banana-growing region of Colombia near the Peruvian border from 1997 to 2004.
The Alien Tort Claims Act allows American companies to be sued in the United States by residents of other countries in cases where laws have been broken.
The complaint seeks unspecified damages.
In 2003, Chiquita Brands admitted to the U.S. Justice Department that it gave money to Autodefensas Unidad de Colombia, which the U.S. State Department has listed as a terrorist group since 2001.
The company said it had to pay more than $1.7 million to the group, which has an estimated 20,000 members, to protect its employees working in the region.
In March, Chiquita Brands paid a $25 million fine as part of a plea deal with the Justice Department, which had filed a criminal complaint against the company over the payments to the AUC.
It is a crime for any U.S. citizen or business to support terrorist groups designated by the State Department.
"The criminal penalty was $25 million," Wichmann said. "The damages that we are asking for are compensatory damages and punitive damages, and that amount will be set by the jury."
None of the money from the fine is earmarked for the victims' families, but Wichmann said he understands the Colombian government is working with the State Department, so some of the money might go to the victims' families.
According to the lawsuit filed by the families in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the AUC was initially formed to combat other guerrilla groups but, since its inception, has engaged in criminal activities such as kidnapping, murder and narcotics trafficking.
The 19-page complaint also alleges an in-house investigation into payments made to the AUC and conducted at the behest of Chiquita Brands' board of directors in 2000 failed to stop the cash flow. It wasn't until 2003 that a company executive reported the payments to the Justice Department.
Maria Hoelle of Fowler Rodriguez in Coral Gables, Fla., which represents Chiquita in the case, said Chiquita Brands will "defend it aggressively and vigorously." She added that Washington, D.C., is the proper place for the case to be tried because the claims "really have no connection to the Southern District of Florida."
She declined to comment on the specifics of the case.
The details of the 22 deaths are included in the lawsuit, from a 2002 bus stop kidnapping and murder to a public massacre at the Villa Lucia Farm, which received widespread media attention.
The outcome/impact: The case is open. Chiquita has not yet filed a response to the complaint, and a motion to move the case to Washington, D.C., is still pending. Both sides have requested oral argument on the issue of venue, but no ruling has been made on those motions.
Other cases: In 2005, Conrad & Scherer won a $38 million award after a 14-week trial for Dr. Steven Scott, who had sued HIP of Florida, now Vista Health Plans of Florida, claiming the company had lied about its liabilities at the time he bought it for $40 million.