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.
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