Excerpted from Wall Street Journal - "A Blatant Extortion"
Court cases get dismissed all the time, but rarely are dismissals as significant as the two lawsuits against Dole Food and other companies that were tossed recently by a California judge. Among other good things, the ruling is a setback for tort lawyers who troll abroad seeking dubious claims to bring in U.S. courts.
The allegations against Dole, the world's largest fruit and vegetable producer, involved banana plantation workers in Nicaragua who alleged that exposure to the pesticide DBPC in the 1970s left them sterile. The only problem is that most of the plaintiffs had not worked at plantations and weren't sterile. In fact, there's no evidence that farm workers at Dole facilities were exposed to harmful levels of the chemical -- which was legal and widely used at the time -- or that the level of exposure they did experience even causes sterility.
"What has occurred here is not just a fraud on the court, but it is a blatant extortion of the defendants," said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney in her oral ruling. More than 40 related cases involving thousands of plaintiffs from Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and the Ivory Coast are pending in her court. And the ruling puts in doubt some $2 billion in judgments that plaintiffs lawyers have already obtained in Nicaragua.
Judge Chaney dismissed the cases "with prejudice" to prevent the plaintiffs from filing again on the same claims, and she denounced the lawyers who hatched the scheme. "This is a very sad day for me to be presiding over such a horrific situation," said the judge, who described a "pervasive conspiracy" involving U.S. plaintiffs lawyers and corrupt Nicaraguan judges.
Judge Chaney said she heard evidence of U.S. attorneys colluding with judges, lab technicians and local officials in Nicaragua to suborn perjury and doctor medical reports. Ten thousand men were rounded up and coached to make false claims of sterility in hope of reaping billions of dollars from companies like Dole, Dow Chemical and Amvac. Anyone who revealed the ruse was threatened with violence, as were the U.S. investigators hired by the defendants.
"There have been groups of medical personnel providing sham laboratory reports indicating sterility where none really exists; groups of fathers denying paternity of their own children, posing as lonely men coming into the court, saying that they had no solace in their old age because they have no children," said the judge.
Note: The Sacramento law firm of Miller Axline and Sawyer, environmental tort lawyers, were apparently involved but not cited by Judge Chaney. For more on this law firm read: "Santa Monica Agrees To Pay Record $55 Million in Legal Fees," here
Also, lawyers must refrain from being informal in Judge Chaney's courtroom. Here are some of the rules for her courtroom as reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2006:
Do not, I repeat, do NOT unscrew a water bottle in the courtroom. Do not chew gum. Do not laugh loudly. And do not read verbatim from pleadings.
In a scalding, no-holds-barred article penned for the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney, currently hearing the premier Vioxx trial in the Golden State, dishes on the unnerving things lawyers do in the courtroom. Closing arguments in the Vioxx trial start today and the lawyers for both sides might want to make a little pet peeve crib sheet.
Adopting a tone that would make Miss Manners adjust her suit and sit up straight, Judge Chaney writes: “No matter how well-educated or well-trained, otherwise capable attorneys can display behavior in the courtroom and carelessness in their pleadings that will alienate the court staff and, even worse, the judge.”
Ahem. And in case you’re thinking this doesn’t apply to you, Judge Chaney continues: “Perhaps you are thinking, ‘Oh, that characterization of attorneys does not apply to me at all.’ I would advise you to think again . . . .perhaps you too are not immune from being an annoyance to judges and the court staff.”
Judge Chaney writes that an informal poll of her colleagues produced the following no-no’s:
- Tardiness. “When I was in school, tardiness rated a demerit. Walking into a courtroom after a session has begun is disruptive. Even more irritating, however, is the tardy attorney for whom the on-time attorneys and the court are waiting.”
- Incivility. “All too often, attorneys will stand up in court and spout “he said” “no she said” comments at each other. We judges are not interested in a blow-by-blow description of an acrimonious exchange between counsel.”
- Lack of brevity. “Catch the judge’s attention immediately at the beginning of a brief. An unfocused argument is frequently a losing argument. How can a reader ferret out important points of your case if your writing wanders in circles?”
- Casualness. “A courtroom is not a place to chat
with your friends. The staff has a lot of work to do and does not
appreciate the distraction of loud laughter and gossip. It has become
fashionable for counsel to pause during proceedings to take a swig from
a bottle of wateran ever-constant presence in brief cases. Unscrewing a
water bottle, tipping it toward the heavens, and gulping may be
acceptable after a jog or in your car, but not in the courtroom,
especially while addressing the judge on the record or arguing to the
Do not chew gum. Do not laugh loudly. And do not read verbatim from pleadings.
So, dear lawyers, tell us about some of your most memorable moments with judges, and pet peeves from counsel table.