By Gisell Landrian, 2L
In a 2007 settlement with the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), Chiquita Brands International admitted to illegally funding a Colombian terrorist group, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (“AUC”). The banana producer and distributor admitted to paying the AUC over $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004, for protection in its farming regions of Colombia. Following the settlement with the DOJ, thousands of relatives of victims murdered and tortured by the AUC filed suit against the American corporation.
Earlier this month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that most of the plaintiffs suing Chiquita and several Chiquita executives may proceed with their claims brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act and Colombian Law. This arises from a multi-district litigation proceeding, which was consolidated for proceedings in the Southern District of Florida. The bellwether plaintiffs allege that Chiquita should be held accountable for the deaths of their family members killed by the AUC given that Chiquita partially funded the terrorist group between 1997 and 2004. Specifically, the plaintiffs argue that the deaths of their relatives were a direct and foreseeable result of Chiquita’s payments to the terrorist group. After several years of litigation, in September 2019, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Based on several evidentiary rulings, the court ruled that the plaintiffs did not present sufficient admissible evidence to support the allegations that the AUC had killed the plaintiffs’ family members.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the district court abused its discretion when it excluded several pieces of evidence supporting their claims and that a genuine issue of material fact precluded summary judgment. In a unanimous decision, the Eleventh Court opined that in its evidentiary rulings, “the district court got some right and some wrong.” The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately held that because some of the evidence excluded by the district court was admissible, the plaintiffs presented sufficient admissible evidence to survive summary judgment. While the Eleventh Circuit’s reversal does not guarantee a successful judgment for the plaintiffs, it allows the families of victims of the AUC the opportunity to take their case in front of a jury.