Court of Appeal Affirms Dismissal of Cases Brought by Foreign Banana Farm Workers Claiming Exposure to Chemicals Rendered Them Sterile
On March 7, 2014, the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles put an end to years of toxic tort litigation by affirming a trial court’s ruling to grant petitions for writ of error coram vobis, affirming dismissal of a case against Dole Food Company based on the plaintiffs’ counsel fraudulent litigation tactics. Laguna v. Dole Food Co., Inc. (2014) Cal. App. 2d Dist., B233497, WL 891268. On March 27, 2014, Court of Appeal decided yet another case against Dole regarding the plaintiffs’ alleged exposure to DBCP, affirming dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims because they were untimely. Macasa v. Dole Food Co., Inc. (2014) Cal. App. 2d Dist., B245138, WL 1254688.
Laguna began in 2007, when the plaintiffs, purportedly former Dole employees on Nicaragua banana farms, filed a complaint (the Tellez action) against Dole alleging that between 1970 and 1980, as Dole-contracted employees, they were exposed to a pesticide called dibromochloropropane (DBCP). The plaintiffs alleged that the application and exposure of DBCP rendered them sterile.
On November 5, 2007, a jury returned a multimillion-dollar verdict in favor of the plaintiffs to compensate them for their alleged injuries. Shortly after the verdict, an anonymous witness, later referred to as “Witness X,” came forward and alleged that he had evidence two of the recovering plaintiffs had never even worked on a Dole-contracted banana farm. Witness X further confirmed that the plaintiffs had provided false testimony and documentary evidence to further their claims.
Though the trial court issued a protective order ensuring Witness X’s anonymity, ultimately he refused to testify in court for Dole. Nevertheless, Dole filed a motion for a new trial, citing Witness X’s testimony as evidence. The trial court denied the motion, and judgment was entered in October 2008, rendering Dole liable to four plaintiffs, not liable to one plaintiff, and granting a new trial to plaintiff Laguna. All parties appealed the judgment.
As discovery continued for two other related cases, Dole discovered that the cases were laden with fraud. Dole uncovered evidence that one of the plaintiffs had in fact impregnated several women after supposedly being exposed to DBCP. Another plaintiff admitted having to memorize employment data and study detailed information related to his testimony in order to prepare for his deposition. Witnesses admitted that the plaintiffs’ attorneys had paid former banana farm supervisors to sign certificates in blank and to recruit potential plaintiffs, regardless of whether they had worked on a banana farm or not. Further testimony showed that the plaintiffs’ counsel had paid to produce fraudulent laboratory test results and paid potential plaintiffs to lie about any children born subsequent to their DBCP exposure. The trial court eventually dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in the two related cases, entering final judgment in favor of Dole on June 26, 2009. There were no appeals.
However, the Laguna/Tellez was still pending, and when evidence of extrinsic fraud is discovered during the pendency of an appeal, an appellate court can issue a writ of error coram vobis directing the trial court to reconsider its decision in light of the newly discovered evidence. So, the defendants in Laguna/Tellez filed a coram vobis petition in the Court of Appeal on May 19, 2009, alleging that the evidenced fraud in the two dismissed related cases also tainted the plaintiffs’ claims in the instant case. Dole requested that the judgment be vacated and the case dismissed with prejudice. The court determined the defendants had “made a prima facie showing of entitlement to an order to show cause with respect to their claims that the underlying judgment in [Tellez] was procured in part by means of fraud.” The court further ordered the plaintiffs to “show cause in a return before the superior court why the relief prayed for in the petitions should not be granted.” At the conclusion of the order to show cause hearings, the trial court determined that the plaintiffs and their counsel had perpetuated “fraud on the court” by recruiting non-banana farm workers as plaintiffs and then coaching them to lie about their work, submitting false certificates, falsifying laboratory reports, lying about children conceived post-DBCP exposure, and using methods of intimidation, tampering and threats to discourage witnesses from coming forward. As such, in 2010, the trial court granted the defendants’ petition for coram vobis, vacating the judgment and dismissing the case with prejudice.
The plaintiffs appealed, contending that the trial court abused its discretion when issuing protective orders and violated their due process rights, that Dole had not acted diligently to uncover the fraud, and that the new evidence would not have made probable or compelled a different result at trial. The Court of Appeal rejected the plaintiffs’ contentions and affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant coram vobis relief, vacate the judgment, and dismiss the action with prejudice.
In another case, the plaintiffs in Macasa were 2,936 Philippine residents who filed an action in the Philippines in October 1998, alleging that their exposure to DBCP in the 1970s while working on banana farms rendered them sterile. In March 2000, the plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint with virtually the same claims, but increased the number of plaintiffs to 34,869. Several defendants moved to dismiss the original and amended complaints, alleging they had been improperly served, depriving the court of personal jurisdiction. The Philippine Regional Trial Court denied the motions to dismiss. Nonetheless, in October 2002, the Philippine Court of Appeals dismissed the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint based on improper service of summons. Though the plaintiffs appealed the decision, no further Philippine court would hear the action, and on April 13, 2009, the Philippine Supreme Court declined to reconsider its order denying review for the plaintiffs.
Thereafter, on August 8, 2011, the Macasa action was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of 2,432 Philippine plaintiffs. The complaint was later amended to add 504 more plaintiffs. The plaintiffs’ claims were identical to the Philippine suit and alleged that the Philippine suit had terminated on April 13, 2009, with the Philippine Supreme Court’s denial of review. The plaintiffs further alleged that the trial court had proper jurisdiction over the matter based on the fact that defendant Dole and all other defendants conduct business in California and that Dole’s principal place of business is in Los Angeles. They further claimed that they had pursued their claims in the Philippines in good faith and reasonably during the statutory period, and therefore, their action was filed timely under the doctrine of equitable tolling without any prejudice to the defendants.
The defendants alleged the action was time-barred under California’s two-year statute of limitations and that the equitable tolling doctrine was only available to California residents, not residents of the Philippines.
The trial court sustained the defendants’ demurrers without leave to amend, concluding that the plaintiffs’ claims were time barred as a matter of law for three reasons. First, as residents of the Philippines, the plaintiffs could not benefit from the equitable tolling doctrine. Second, even if equitable tolling applied to the plaintiffs, the statute of limitations had run on April 12, 2011, two years after the Philippine Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration “with finality” and four months before the plaintiffs filed their action in Los Angeles. Because the plaintiffs had allowed two years and four months to lapse before filing their action in Los Angeles, they had not demonstrated “good faith and reasonable conduct in filing the second claim,” as required to benefit from equitable tolling.
The plaintiffs appealed, and the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision, holding that, regardless of whether the plaintiffs had the right to invoke the equitable tolling doctrine or pled its applicability in good faith, the action was time-barred because it was filed four months past the expiration of California’s two-year limitations period. The court also concluded that the Philippines’ four-year statute of limitations did not apply, and that the plaintiffs could not amend their complaint to cure the time bar.