Dole Food Co. has filed a defamation suit in Los Angeles against two Swedish filmmakers whose recently screened documentary chronicles a lawsuit alleging that workers in Nicaragua were rendered sterile after being exposed to the pesticide DBCP on Dole’s banana farms.
The documentary — called Bananas! — tells the tale of the first U.S. trial involving the pesticide claims against Dole. In 2007, a jury in Los Angeles awarded $5.8 million in damages to six Nicaraguan workers in Tellez v. Dole, No. BC312852 (Los Angeles Co., Calif., Super. Ct.).
But in April, Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney threw out two similar cases against Dole in Los Angeles after finding that the plaintiffs and their lawyers — particularly lead plaintiffs’ attorney Juan J. Dominguez of the Law Offices of Juan J. Dominguez in Los Angeles — committed fraud in bringing the claims. Specifically, the judge found that plaintiffs and their lawyers had falsified work documents and claims of sterility and that evidence revealed a “truly heinous and repulsive” scheme of pervasive fraud involving Dominguez that was “cemented together by human greed and avarice,” according to the complaint, which was filed on July 8.
Dominguez did not respond to a request for comment in April and did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment on July 8.
The suit was filed one day after a panel of the California 2d District Court of Appeal ruled that the Tellez judgment, which Dole had appealed, should be reviewed in lower court to determine whether it was tainted by potential fraud.
Last month, Bananas!, directed by Fredrik Gertten and produced by Margarete Jangard of Sweden’s WG Film AG, was screened during Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival. The film excluded all mention of the fraud finding, according to Dole’s lawsuit.
“I’ve have spent my career fighting to defend First Amendment rights, and Mr. Gertten’s documentary is a blatant and clear example of defamation,” said Dole’s lawyer, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a partner at Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in an e-mailed statement. “He is presenting the film as a factual documentary when the basis of the film has been thoroughly discredited by court rulings. Despite exhaustive efforts to encourage Mr. Gertten to correct the inaccuracies in his documentary, he has continued to promote and profit from the film knowing it is based on fraudulent and false information and bogus sources.”
In particular, the complaint alleged that the documentary fails to mention that the judge in the Tellez case reduced the damages award. Furthermore, the suit alleged, the filmmakers never contacted Dole in connection with the documentary, and the film falsely suggests that DBCP on its banana farms caused the deaths of Nicaraguans.
“There is no evidence that Dole’s use of DBCP has ever caused a single death anywhere,” the complaint said.
On June 20, the Los Angeles Film Festival provided a written statement to audience members saying that “there seems to be little question that the version of reality that the film portrays does not match the reality that emerged in the courtroom…Nor, given what we now know, do we believe that Bananas! — in its present form — presents a fair and accurate account of Juan Dominguez and the Tellez trial,” according to the complaint.
Although it screened the movie as a case study, the Film Festival pulled it from the documentary competition, saying that the filmmakers had relied on “unreliable evidence” and “a lawyer who has been found by the trial judge to have committed fraud on the court by recruiting and training his clients to present false evidence under oath and providing false employment documents and false lab reports — conduct which resulted in fraudulent testimony inside and outside of court,” the complaint said.
Gertten repeatedly vouched for the film’s accuracy, however, and continued to make false statements at events and radio interviews following the festival, according to the suit.
“From start to finish, the documentary film Bananas!…promotes as fact a false story that was adjudicated a fraud on Dole and on California’s courts before the film was ever screened,” the complaint alleged. “Prior to the film’s world premiere, Dole brought this fact to the Defendants’ attention, and made repeated, detailed attempts to convince the Defendants that the film’s patent falsehoods required that it not be shown without significant revisions. Despite their awareness of these facts, the Defendants, however, refused to make any meaningful changes to the film, and persisted in publicly screening it and touting its accuracy in the face of court rulings that its story was false and amounted to ‘extortion.’ “
An e-mail sent to the company that produced the documentary, WG Film AG, and addressed to Gertten and Jangard, all of whom are named as defendants, was not immediately returned.
According to WG Film’s Web site, at least 10 people from Dole were in the audience taking notes during the recent screening of Bananas! in Los Angeles.
“The debate was insane, but we did well,” WG Film’s Web site said. “The sympathy fell on our side.”
The case is Dole Food Company Inc. v. Gertten, No. BC417435 (L.A. Co., Calif., Sup. Ct.)