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Dole ordered to pay filmmakers' attorney fees in SLAPP case

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A California judge ordered Dole Food Co. Inc. to pay about $200,000 in court costs and attorney’s fees to two…

A California judge ordered Dole Food Co. Inc. to pay about $200,000 in court costs and attorney’s fees to two documentary filmmakers who it had sued over a documentary about the company's practices. Dole previously voluntarily dropped its defamation lawsuit against the filmmakers, who, Dole alleged, implied the company had caused the deaths of Nicaraguan farm workers.

In Dole Food Company v. Gertten, the Los Angeles County Superior Court found that filmmakers Fredrik Gertten and Margarete Jangard were entitled to fees to cover the costs that accrued because of the July 2009 defamation lawsuit, according to the court’s ruling.

Soon after Dole brought its claim, the defendants filed a motion to strike the lawsuit under California’s anti-SLAPP law. The statute is intended to protect against meritless lawsuits — "strategic lawsuits against public participation" — designed to silence free speech.

After Dole dropped its suit, Gertten sought attorney’s fees and a ruling on the SLAPP motion to be sure that the lawsuit could never resurface, said attorney Lincoln Bandlow, who represented Gertten.

In his Nov. 17 ruling, Judge Ralph Dau found that even though Dole dropped its claim, it qualified as a SLAPP. “In other words, had [Dole] not voluntarily dismissed its action, the court would be granting defendants’ motion to strike," Dau said in his opinion.

This statement was based on the court's finding that the false impression Dole claimed the film conveyed about its Nicaraguan farmers was unclear and, thus, not defamatory.

"[Dole] did not establish a probability that it would have prevailed upon the claim," the court said.

“It really just showed that they conceded that we would have won,” Bandlow said.

The film at the heart of the matter is “Bananas!*,” which tells the story of Los Angeles lawyer Juan Dominguez, who sued Dole on behalf of allegedly exploited Nicaraguan banana plantation workers. Before the film was released, a trial court found that Dominguez did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that Dole had caused the deaths of the workers by using a harmful chemical on its farms, according to the ruling.

The court in Dominguez’s case also found that the lawyer had “engineered a fraud on the court,” but Gertten nonetheless chose to screen “Bananas!*”

“The ruling in no way endorses the claims made in the film,” said Dole spokesman Marty Ordman. “In fact, [that court] has since dismissed the very lawsuit that is the subject of the film because of ‘blatant fraud on the court’ and ‘witness tampering.’”

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