LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge has ordered Dole Food Co. to pay nearly $200,000 to a Swedish filmmaker who battled the company in a free speech case involving a documentary about claims that Dole harmed workers at Nicaraguan banana plantations.
Dole had sued Fredrik Gertten for showing the documentary "Bananas" despite a court ruling that the case on which the film was based had been part of a massive extortion plot against the company. Dole sued for defamation.
But Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau found in a ruling issued Nov. 17 that the U.S. food giant was trying to stifle Gertten's right to free speech and ordered the company to pay his legal fees and costs.
Dole claimed the movie was defamatory and false in its depiction of Dole's treatment of banana workers and use of a pesticide. But the company dropped its lawsuit after the Swedish parliament denounced Dole's action as unwarranted interference with freedom of speech and threatened to hold hearings.
Dau's ruling was a postscript to a high profile court challenge by Dole which led a judge to rule there had been massive fraud designed to collect billions of dollars through false claims of harm to Nicaraguan workers.
Judge Victoria Chaney found that Los Angeles lawyer Juan J. Dominguez conspired to recruit men to testify they worked on Dole's banana plantations and were rendered sterile by exposure to a banned pesticide. Testimony showed the men were not plantation workers and were trained by Dominguez and a Nicaraguan associate to lie. Witnesses and investigators told of fearing for their lives for exposing the fraud.
Shortly after Chaney's decision was announced, Gertten brought his documentary to a Los Angeles film festival. Dole tried to block its showing, claiming it depicted Dominguez as a "nobel hero" fighting for exploited banana workers.
Dau suggested in his ruling that end cards attached to the movie explained the fraud finding. He also said it was a matter of opinion whether Dominguez comes out of the movie as a hero or villain.
"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.
He said that had Dole pursued its suit, the Westlake Village, Calif., company likely would have lost because "an actionable defamation can only be based on a provably false statement of fact, not matters of opinion."
Dole spokesman Marty Ordman issued a terse statement saying, "The ruling in no way endorses the claims made in the film." The statement noted Chaney has since dismissed the lawsuit that is the subject of the film because of blatant fraud and witness tampering.
Gertten said in a statement that "corporations such as Dole must respect freedom of speech and the freedom of press." While conglomerates have unlimited resources, he said, independent filmmakers "have very limited means to defend ourselves."
He said he hoped "Bananas" would now find a wider audience and encourage discussion of human rights for farm workers.