A California court has reportedly ordered Dole Food Co. to pay about $200,000 in legal fees and costs to Swedish filmmakers whom the company sued for defamation, alleging that their documentary about the lawyer who sued Dole on behalf of Nicaraguan banana plantation workers exposed to the pesticide DBCP implied that the company caused their deaths. Dole Food Co. v. Gertten, No. n/a (Los Angeles County Super. Ct., Cal., decided November 17, 2010).

The filmmakers filed a motion to strike the lawsuit after it was filed in July 2009 on the ground that it constituted a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP, which is prohibited by state law. Although Dole apparently dismissed its lawsuit voluntarily thereafter, “[t]he potential distributors were concerned because Dole had only dismissed without prejudice. They had the right to re-file the action,” according to the filmmakers’ counsel. While the film has been distributed in 15 countries, it has not evidently been shown in the United States since it premiered during the June 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. So the filmmakers sought attorney’s fees and a ruling on the SLAPP motion to ensure the case would not be resurrected.

The court ruled that the company “did not establish a probability that it would have prevailed upon the claim,” and, if Dole had not voluntarily dismissed its action “the court would be granting defendants’ motion to strike.” Apparently the court determined that the film’s message was unclear, and thus, not defamatory. The judge reportedly wrote, “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 deeppocket corporation, is a matter of opinion. It cannot be the basis for a claim of defamation.”

The film’s screening followed the dismissal of DBCP cases against Dole on the ground that Dominguez colluded with his clients to falsify work documents and lab reports. Additional information about the dismissed cases appears in Issue 297 of this Update. See National Law Journal and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, November 30, 2010.