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Was 'Accidentes' Lawyer an Accident Waiting to Happen?

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Thu, Jul 16, 2009 at 9:31 AM


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Even in a town teeming with personal-injury lawyers, Juan Dominguez has stood out. Angelenos may not recognize their Senators, but they are familiar with an array of sympathetic or aggressive attorneys beaming at them from phone book covers and the backs of buses. (Dominguez is the one without facial hair.) "Accidentes" scream the letters on Dominguez's advertisements that have become part of the landscape in Latino neighborhoods.

So Dominguez seemed both a natural yet unorthodox champion of a group of Nicaraguan banana workers who were pursuing their claims against Dole Foods in American court. The former Dole employees say they were left sterile because Dole used a banned pesticide on its crops called DBPC. The Nicaraguan workers, like those in several other Central American countries, won huge judgments in their home courts, but needed to press their claims in America to force Dole to pay them.

Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten used Dominguez as an important focus of a documentary called Bananas!*,

which sympathetically followed the workers' efforts in the Los Angeles

courtroom of Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney. For Gertten, here

was a Ferrari-driving ambulance chaser who'd become ennobled by the

Dole workers' plight and who, as Dominguez says, wanted to stand up for

the little guy.


Yet Dole's lawyers brought out evidence that Dominguez and his

counterparts in Nicaragua had hired non-plantation employees to pretend

to be afflicted Dole workers. Chaney was persuaded by the charges and

threw out the case in April -- and had the state bar and U.S.

authorities look into any crimes that Dominguez's alleged

actions may have involved. And for good measure, Dole is suing Gertten to

prevent him from showing his film.

A Wednesday Guardian U.K. profile looked at the legal turmoil Dominguez's alleged actions have caused, jeopardizing related cases in Florida and elsewhere.

"Attorneys

who represent banana workers in other cases," the Guardian article

said, "complained that the ruling was too sweeping and undermined

legitimate evidence that Dole ignored safety guidelines and harmed

impoverished laborers with DBCP."

This complaint has been echoed

in other quarters by people who see Dominguez's actions -- selfish or

well-intentioned -- as providing a multinational corporation they

regard as guilty with a perfect way to escape punishment. Gertten, who

has had to insert title cards at the end of his documentary explaining

how the case got thrown out, makes no secret he believes Dole to be

responsible for the injury of non-actor banana workers.

"Dole," Gertten told the Guardian, "has been very successful in selling itself as the victim. In the

film Dominguez is portrayed as a very colorful personality, which he

is. I make it clear he is not a classical human rights-type lawyer."

Dominguez, whose Web site

includes toxic torts and "catastrophes" as his firm's specialties, has

complained that Dole's allegations against him do not mention the names

of Nicaraguans who charged him with casting non-Dole workers to

masquerade as witnesses.

The Guardian feature dryly

observed that had he succeeded in court, Dominguez could have been portrayed by Hollywood as "a Latino Erin Brokovich." Instead, he is being

investigated and thousands of very real banana workers might lose their

claims against Dole. For them, their biggest catastrophe could be

Dominguez.

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