The New York Times
Friday 27 July 2007
Birmingham, Alabama - A federal jury found on Thursday that Drummond, an Alabama-based coal company, was not liable for the deaths of three union leaders at its mine near La Loma, Colombia, in 2001.
The case, which ended after a two-week trial in Federal District Court here, was the first of its kind to go to trial under the Alien Tort Statute, a 218-year-old law that labor unions and human rights advocates have recently used to sue American corporations over abuses in developing countries. However, the jury dismissed the plaintiffs' accusations that Drummond had aided in the murders of the union leaders.
"We said from the beginning that the allegations were not true, and we are gratified that a jury of 10 people could hear the evidence and agree," a Drummond lawyer, William Jeffress, said after the verdict.
Drummond, a subsidiary of the Drummond Company, began mining coal in Colombia in 1996. It now operates the world's largest open-pit coal mine there, where last year it extracted about 25 million tons of coal.
In March 2001, right-wing paramilitary troops pulled two union leaders - Victor Orcasita and Valmore Locarno - from a company bus that was taking them home from the mine. Gunmen killed Mr. Locarno by the roadside and Mr. Orcasita's body was found later with bullet wounds to the head and signs of torture. About six months later, Gustavo Soler, who had succeeded Mr. Locarno as president of the union, was found shot to death.
Lawyers from the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund sued the company on behalf of the union leaders' families under the Alien Tort Statute. The suit contended that Drummond had taken sides in Colombia's 40-year civil war and that the company had given material assistance to the paramilitary groups in exchange for the murder of the union leaders.
At trial, however, the plaintiffs could not prove clear connections between the company and the paramilitary groups.
"It is a big step to go from a human rights report that is convincing to facts that can be brought to the United States and put in front of a jury," said Beth Stephens, a law professor at Rutgers University, Camden, N.J. "But just because this case was not successful, it does not mean that other cases cannot make that step."
In closing arguments, Mr. Jeffress acknowledged that the working conditions at the mine were initially primitive and that many of the union's grievances in 2001 were legitimate, but he insisted that Drummond and its executives were not murderers. Taking sides in the civil war would only have made the company a target in the conflict, he said.
Similar lawsuits are pending against several other American corporations, including Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum and Chiquita Brands International, but according to Peter J. Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, this case differed because of Drummond's lower profile. The company did not have a household name to protect, unlike some others.
"A company like Drummond is in a better position to go to the mat on these kinds of claims because the hit outside the courtroom is going to be a manageable one," he said. "When you are looking at companies with brands that they have to protect, even if they win in the courtroom, they might lose at the cash register."
The Drummond victory is symbolic, but it will not likely deter similar lawsuits, Mr. Spiro said, because the jury verdict does not test the underlying legal theory of the Alien Tort Statute. Those issues of the law's application must be determined on the appellate level.
After the verdict, the plaintiff's lead lawyer, Terry Collingsworth, said that an appeal would be swift and that he doubted the verdict would hurt similar lawsuits elsewhere. "These facts are these facts," he said of the lawsuit. "But the law is still permitting these cases to go forward."