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For more than 20 years, Alcides Acosta and Neal Palmer “Pal” Brooks were friends and business partners. Acosta was a prosperous fruit grower who owned Acosta Farms in Homestead, Fla.; Brooks was a successful grower and fruit packer who owned Brooks Tropicals in Homestead. Acosta had his limes, mangoes and other fruit packaged at Pal’s company. They went fishing together off Bimini. Deals between them were done with a handshake. But now, the two fruit growers, two of South Florida’s largest, are in an all-out war. Acosta has bought a competing packing plant, and next month the two former friends and business partners are scheduled to square off in a courtroom at Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Acosta contends that Pal Brooks lied to him and cheated him out of hundreds of thousands of dollars won in a settlement with DuPont Co. involving Benlate pesticide contamination eight years ago. In a lawsuit filed in October 2000, Acosta alleges that Pal Brooks, who served as the lead plaintiff in the Benlate suit, committed fraud, fraud in the inducement, breach of contract, and breach of fiduciary duty. He is demanding compensatory damages in excess of $500,000. “Brooks defrauded Acosta … by distributing to itself a disproportionate amount of the settlement funds, and by participating in self-dealing and breaches of fiduciary duties,” Acosta Farms claims in the lawsuit. “The actions … were willful, wanton, malicious and in total disregard of the rights of Acosta.” Pal Brooks denies owing Acosta Farms anything, arguing that the grower was fully apprised of all details pertaining to the settlement and was given its fair share. PACKING HOUSE DAMAGES The main sticking point is that when Brooks Tropicals calculated its portion of damages, and divided up the money due the co-plaintiffs, it gave itself “packing house” damages — money lost not just from destroyed crops but also money lost as a result of smaller packing house revenues. But there’s clearly a personal element to the suit. It is that Acosta feels his trust was betrayed by his old friend, Pal Brooks, according to Acosta’s attorney. “All business was done with a handshake. There were no contracts,” says Dania Saavedra, an associate at Sacher Zelman Van Sant Paul Beiley Hartman & Waldman in Miami. She is representing Acosta with Glen H. Waldman, a partner at Sacher Zelman. Ironically, on the day the Benlate settlement was reached in 1994, Brooks and Acosta were fishing together. “He trusted him,” Saavedra says. “Acosta agreed to join Brooks’ lawsuit. Then Brooks turned around and didn’t give him the right amount of settlement money.” Calls to Acosta, who owns tens of thousands of citrus and other fruit-bearing trees in southern Miami-Dade County, were not returned. Craig Wheeling, chief executive officer of Brooks Tropicals, said Pal Brooks had no comment. Brooks Tropicals is being represented by Edmund T. Henry III, a partner at Shutts & Bowen in Miami. Henry could not be reached for comment. The original Benlate lawsuit originated more than 10 years ago. It was one of dozens of lawsuits brought against DuPont over the fungicide formerly manufactured by DuPont that was used for crop protection. The lawsuits alleged that instead of protecting crops, Benlate appeared to be destroying crops on a massive scale. Florida officials called it the worst man-made agricultural disaster in the state’s history. DuPont maintained that the product was safe, but the chemical giant settled the flurry of lawsuits and paid out $1.3 billion in legal and recall expenses. Last year, despite continuing to maintain that Benlate is safe, DuPont discontinued sales of the product. ORAL AGREEMENT In August 1993, Acosta Farms and Brooks Tropicals joined with 10 other plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against DuPont, alleging that Benlate was responsible for large-scale crop destruction. In bringing the suit, says Saavedra, the arrangement among the plaintiffs was like most of the deals between fruit growers and packers in south Miami-Dade. It was done orally, without a contract. As part of this arrangement, Acosta Farms alleges, Pal Brooks was given full control over the litigation. He hired attorney Louis V. Vendittelli, a partner at Sheehe & Vendittelli in Miami, to represent the 12 plaintiffs on a contingency basis. Pal Brooks named James Zeke Zaharako, a Brooks employee, as the group’s representative to speak with Vendittelli. The plaintiffs allegedly reached an oral agreement on a distribution plan for any money won in the lawsuit. Vendittelli declined comment. Attempts to reach Zaharako were unsuccessful. Without going to trial, in June 1994, the 12 plaintiffs settled with DuPont for $3.6 million. Out of this sum, Acosta Farms was apportioned $119,924, which, after paying Vendittelli’s fees and costs, amounted to $87,234. According to court filings, Acosta “questioned Pal Brooks regarding the division of the settlement proceeds and was assured the monies disbursed” to him were all he was entitled to. DISPROPORTIONATE SHARE? But in September 1996, Acosta heard rumors that Brooks Tropicals had received a disproportionate share of the settlement funds. Throughout the fall, Acosta repeatedly asked Vendittelli for a copy of the distribution schedule but was denied. Finally, according to the complaint, in January 1997 the distribution schedule was divulged. To Acosta, it looked fraudulent. Fifty-six percent of the total settlement proceeds, more than $2 million, had gone to Brooks Tropicals, while Acosta Farms had received just 3 percent. “There was a substantial anomaly between the distribution to Brooks for the acreage of Brooks’ groves affected compared to the distribution according to both Acosta’s groves as well as that of the remaining plaintiffs,” according to Acosta Farms’ complaint. The alleged anomaly among several allegations is whether “packing house” damages should have been kept by Brooks as well as acreage damages. In Acosta’s view, the agreement never included “packing house” damages. “Part and parcel of this agreement was the understanding that any proceeds from the eventual settlement or other favorable resolution of the Brooks suit would be distributed between the plaintiffs in proportion to the amount of damaged acreage each of the plaintiffs suffered,” Acosta says in its complaint. Not surprisingly, Pal Brooks vehemently disagrees. In Pal Brooks’ view, from the day the complaint was filed against DuPont, it was clear that Brooks Farms should receive extra money because it makes its money not only as a grower but as a packing house. The “prime issue about which [Acosta] contends it was deceived is that Brooks, which … was the packing house for the growers, claimed and received ‘packing house’ damages within the lawsuit,” Brooks Tropicals argues in court filings. “The Benlate complaint clearly alleges such damages.” Acosta and Brooks, the two former friends will meet again. But this time it won’t be in a fishing boat. It will be to argue their cases before Circuit Judge Margarita Esquiroz.

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