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.
He said Drummond was responsible for the deaths. Union leader Ramirez testified last month in front of Congress that Drummond's head of operations in Colombia, Augusto Jimenez, told union negotiators, "The fish dies who opens his mouth."
The union has presented affidavits to the court from two people who say they were present when Jimenez gave cash to the local paramilitary for the killings of Locarno and Orcasita.
Drummond has said it had nothing to do with the murders. In a statement, the company said, "The allegations are completely without merit and have no basis in facts."
A lawyer for Drummond, Bill Jeffress, told the jury that the murders were part of a decades-long pattern of violence in Colombia and that the company never took sides in the ongoing conflict, The Associated Press reported.
"Choosing up sides in the conflict in Colombia is how you get killed," he said.
The case is latest example of human rights groups trying to use U.S. courts to hold individuals and companies accountable for alleged human rights abuses and war crimes across the globe. Advocates argue that the courts in countries like Colombia are inadequate.
About 40 or 50 similar cases have been filed against U.S. or multinational corporations using the Alien Tort Claims Act, though many have been dismissed on legal or procedural grounds. About 15 to 20 cases are still pending, said Stephens.
Originally passed in 1789 to combat piracy on the high seas, the law allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for violations of international law or U.S. treaties. It was little used until the late 1970s, when human rights activists seized on the law to sue foreigners who tortured or engaged in human rights abuses abroad and then fled to the United States.
"It is the business of U.S. courts to deal with potential situations in the U.S. where the victim and torturer encounter each other in Bloomingdales," said Jose Alvarez, who teaches international law at Columbia University. "Absent the ATCA, there really is no remedy."
It has proven more difficult to go after corporations, especially in cases where companies are alleged to have simply cooperated with or helped local groups who carried out the violations.
"They tend to be David and Goliath battles," said Jennie Green, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought one of the first cases under the act in 1979.
The majority of such cases have been dismissed on legal or procedural grounds, though a few have had some results. In 2004, Unocal Corp. settled a claim that it was involved in human rights abuses surrounding the construction of a natural gas pipeline in Myanmar.
The U.S. Department of Justice fined Chiquita Brands International $25 million for giving $1.7 million to militias in Colombia. Chiquita said the payments by one of its subsidiaries were "to protect the lives of its employees."
The case against Drummond is the first to go to trial. "If there's a verdict, that's a big deal," said Alvarez. "Everyone has been trying for a long time to get corporations on the hook."
But the Alien Tort Claims Act has angered business groups and some other critics who say that U.S. courts should not decide disputes that took place half way around the globe. And even some advocates fear that a large verdict against Drummond could lead to intensified efforts to rewrite the law to protect corporations.
"Some of the litigation raises the concern that we don't want our courts managing our foreign policy," said Duke law professor Curtis Bradley. "It can create situations where courts could cause difficulties with U.S. relationships with other countries."