After more than twenty years of litigation, a dispute between Central American banana farmers and the Dole Food Company, Inc. (“Dole”) and other related companies may finally have run its course. Farmers first filed suit in Texas state court in 1993 alleging sterility and other health complications resulted from exposure to the pesticide dibromochloropropane (“DBCP”). Since then, the claims have bounced around between various US jurisdictions in a state of what can only be described as procedural purgatory.
At the time we last reported on the juridical saga in October 2011, courts in California and Florida had refused to recognize judgments entered against Dole in Nicaraguan courts. Meanwhile, back on the banana farm, Dole was poised to settle the claims of more than 5,000 plaintiffs, potentially resolving thirty-three lawsuits in Nicaragua and five lawsuits in the US. Almost a year after that blog post, counsel for the 5,000 plaintiffs finally met the conditions that would trigger Dole’s payments—namely, obtaining a signed release from each plaintiff and procuring the dismissal of the thirty-eight lawsuits. But just as these suits were ending, others were ramping up.
As we previously noted, seven new DBCP cases were filed in Louisiana federal court in June 2011. In September 2012, the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted summary judgment in favor of Dole on the basis that the claims were time-barred, and the Fifth Circuit later affirmed. While the summary judgment motion was pending, however, plaintiffs filed identical lawsuits in Delaware federal court. In Delaware, Dole moved to dismiss based on the application of the first-filed rule, which requires cases of concurrent jurisdiction to be decided by the court that first had possession of the subject. The Delaware District Court agreed that the first-filed rule applied and dismissed the action with prejudice.
On appeal before a panel for the Third Circuit, Appellants argued that the Delaware District Court abused its discretion in dismissing with prejudice instead of staying the action. In a 2-1 decision issued last week, the panel found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the action with prejudice based on the fact that the plaintiffs “were blatantly forum shopping and were attempting to get a second bite at the proverbial apple.” The panel concluded, “Just as we have held that forum shopping is a basis for departing from the first-filed rule, it can also be a basis for enforcing the rule. Here, the Appellants not only filed first, but filed second as well. This duplication of litigation was of their own making and it was not an abuse of discretion for the Delaware District Court to dismiss their second-filed complaint with prejudice, instead of staying the matter.”
The dissenting judge agreed that the first-filed rule applied, but argued that the District Court’s decision to dismiss with prejudice instead of stay the action was contrary to caselaw and out of sync with other Courts of Appeals that have addressed the issue. The dissent reasoned that dismissing with prejudice is inappropriate if “it could cause properly presented claims to go unheard,” and “[b]ecause the Louisiana court dismissed on procedural grounds, the Delaware District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims—with prejudice—effectively ends the plaintiffs’ lawsuit.”
Whether or not this is the end of the road for the banana farmers, the broad take away for corporate defendants is to never underestimate the importance of pursuing procedural challenges with zeal. Both the majority and the dissent recognized that despite more than twenty years of litigation across numerous jurisdictions, no US court has ever heard the merits of the banana farmers’ claims. Each proceeding simply added another layer to the litigation’s complex procedural history, which the Third Circuit aptly characterized as “labyrinthine.”