A recent NLJ story, “Dole Food Hit with Fees for Suing Directors of Banana Plantation Documentary” reports that Dole Food Co. must pay about $200,000 in attorney fees and expenses to two Swedish filmmakers, a judge in Los Angeles ordered after dismissing the company’s defamation suit over a documentary depicting the alleged of banana plantation workers. Dole sued over the film Bananas!, which chronicles a lawsuit in which six Nicaraguan banana workers obtained $5.8 million in damages for the company in 2007. The workers alleged that the company’s use of the pesticide dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, on the banana farms during the 1970s and 1980s left them sterile.
In 2009, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney threw out two similar DBCP cases against Dole after finding the plaintiffs’ lawyers colluded with their clients to falsify work documents and lab reports. Dole alleged that the film excluded all mention of the fraud finding. Although Dole voluntarily dropped its defamation suit a year ago, there was nothing to prevent from refilling it, and that legal threat effectively prevented U.S. distribution of the film.
But in Dole Food Company v. Gertten, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ralph Dau ruled in favor of the filmmakers under California’s Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), finding the filmmakers were entitled to attorney fees to cover the costs that accrued because of the defamation lawsuit. The SLAPP statute is intended to protect against meritless lawsuits designed to silence free speech. The SLAPP law contains a fee-shifting provision.
The judge awarded the filmmakers $199,035 in attorney fees and $924 in costs. They had been seeking $256,793 in attorney fees and $16,620 in costs.