Dole Food Co. Inc. must pay nearly $200,000 in attorney fees and costs to two Swedish filmmakers, a judge in Los Angeles ordered after dismissing the company’s defamation lawsuit over a documentary depicting the alleged plight of banana plantation workers.
Dole sued last year over the film Bananas!, which chronicles a lawsuit in which six Nicaraguan banana workers obtained $5.8 million in damages from the company in 2007. The workers alleged that the company’s use of the pesticide dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, on banana farms during the 1970s and 1980s left them sterile.
The movie was screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2009 — a few months after Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney threw out two similar DBCP cases against Dole after finding that the plaintiffs’ lawyers — particularly lead attorney Juan Dominguez of the Law Offices of Juan J. Dominguez in Los Angeles — colluded with their clients to falsify work documents and lab reports.
Dole alleged that the movie excluded all mention of the fraud finding.
Although Dole voluntarily dismissed the suit a year ago, there was nothing to prevent the company from refiling it, and that legal threat effectively prevented U.S. distribution of the film, said Lincoln Bandlow, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Lathrop & Gage. He represents filmmakers Fredrik Gertten, Margarete Jangàrd and their production company, WG Film.
“The potential distributors were concerned because Dole had only dismissed without prejudice. They had the right to re-file the action,” he said.
On Nov. 23, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ralph Dau, ruling on the filmmakers’ motion to strike the complaint under California’s law against so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, ruled that Dole was not entitled to pursue a defamation claim.
“As with Robin Hood, whether Juan Dominguez is a noble David taking on the evil Goliath Dole, or an ambulance-chasing fraud betraying his clients or trying to hold up a deep-pocket corporation, is a matter of opinion,” the judge wrote. “It cannot be the basis for a claim of defamation.”
The judge awarded the filmmakers $199,035 in attorney fees and about $924 in costs. They had been seeking $256,793 in attorney fees and $16,620 in costs.
“It’s nowhere near the actual amount incurred in this, but we’re satisfied he granted that award,” Bandlow said.
Dole could still appeal the judge’s ruling. Marty Ordman, a Dole spokesman, said: “The ruling in no way endorses the claims made in the film – in fact, Justice Chaney has since dismissed the very lawsuit that is the subject film because of ‘blatant fraud’ on the court and ‘witness tampering.’”
The film is has been distributed in 15 other countries, according to Lathrop & Gage.
Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at email@example.com.