An Alabama-based coal mining company is responsible for the murders of three union leaders in Colombia, lawyers for the union and victims' families told a jury Wednesday in a potentially precedent-setting trial.
The civil lawsuit against Drummond Co. Inc. is believed to be the first case to reach trial in a U.S. court over whether U.S. corporations can be held financially liable for alleged human rights abuses committed overseas. Other similar cases have either been dismissed or settled out of court.
Union leaders and the families of the victims claim that local Drummond employees in Colombia paid a right-wing paramilitary group to murder three union leaders who were critics of the company, which runs one of the world's largest open-pit coal mines in La Loma, Colombia. Drummond has denied the allegations.
The trial is widely seen as test case for future lawsuits against corporations using the Alien Tort Claims Act, a relatively obscure law passed in 1789 that allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for violations of international law or U.S. treaties. About 15 similar cases against corporations for alleged human rights abuses committed abroad are pending in U.S. courts, said Rutgers Law professor Beth Stephens.
"If there's a verdict against Drummond, it will really cause companies to stand up and take notice across the world," said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "This case is critically important."
The plaintiffs have not asked for a specific amount of money, but if Drummond loses, it could potentially have to pay tens of millions of dollars. No criminal charges have been filed against the company.
The case comes amid a Colombian government investigation into the killings. Congress also held hearings last month about U.S. corporate involvement in Colombia's civil war, during which witnesses testified that Drummond had financial ties to local militias, which are listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.
On March 12, 2001, masked gunmen stopped a Drummond-owned bus outside the Drummond mine in La Loma, a war-torn region of Colombia.
The men, believed to be members of a right-wing paramilitary group, asked for Valmore Lacarno Rodriguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita Amaya, two leaders of Sintraminercol, the union that worked at the Drummond-owned mine, and pulled them off the bus, a witness testified in front of Congress last month.
Rodriguez was shot several times in the head outside the bus in front of his co-workers, Francisco Ramierz, president of Sintraminercol, said, according to the transcript of his congressional testimony. Amaya was found dead later that day. He'd been tortured and shot in the head. The man who replaced Rodriguez met a similar fate a few months later.
Relatives of the victims and the labor union sued Drummond in 2003 in federal court in Birmingham, Ala., claiming that Drummond collaborated with and funded the paramilitary group that killed the three men.
More than 4,000 union members have been killed in Colombia since 1986, according to the lawsuit.
In court Wednesday, Rusty Johnson, a lawyer for the union and the families, told jurors that it "is only right that the company be held for its choices and decisions," according to local news reports.
"They chose sides in a war. It was a natural alliance," he said.