Fruit of the Poison Tree

In a Dallas court, Costa Rican banana workers claim a banned pesticide left them sterile


Miguel Picado Ruiz, 51, is one of the bellwether plaintiffs. He is a compact man with heavy-lidded eyes, a neatly trimmed mustache and close-cropped dark hair. His weathered complexion and mocha-colored skin are traits that he shares with most of the plaintiffs in the case, as is the story that pours out in a pleasantly raspy voice.

Like Sosa and most of his fellow plaintiffs, Picado sees the Borja trial as representing much more than monetary compensation for sterility. He is looking for retribution for a life of poverty, of poor health and of stolen pride, all of which can be attributed, in his opinion, directly to one source: Dole Food Company Inc.

The village where Picado lives is called, appropriately, Sagrada Familia, or "sacred family." It's a bit grandiose for what is really just a handful of houses, some of concrete, others of scrap lumber, clustered on a treacherous dirt road snaking through central Costa Rica's banana plantations near Rio Frio. Picado's home, though modest, is one of the more presentable structures, concrete with cheery yellow paint and wood trim around the door and window.

Carlos Sosa, left, has devoted much of his time to the cause of fellow banana workers injured by DBCP. He says the chemical made him sterile.
Charles E. Ames
Carlos Sosa, left, has devoted much of his time to the cause of fellow banana workers injured by DBCP. He says the chemical made him sterile.
Miguel Picado says that exposure to DBCP has left him with a variety of health problems, including the impotence that has strained his relationship with wife Elieth.
Charles E. Ames
Miguel Picado says that exposure to DBCP has left him with a variety of health problems, including the impotence that has strained his relationship with wife Elieth.

Still, it's a far cry from Dallas, where Picado and his wife, Elieth, traveled in September to give depositions. "The first thing I noticed was the vegetation," he says of his trip. "There's no green." In fairness, few places in the United States could compare with the verdant extravagance of Sagrada Familia's tropical setting. His wife was more amazed by Dallas' highways. "They're enormous," she says, the astonishment still in her voice. "So many lanes!"

The two sit with their shoulders touching, Elieth listening intently as her husband speaks, but Picado says that in the past, his frequent inability to have sex hurt their marriage. Picado suffers from a variety of other ailments--joint pain and headaches--that, along with his impotence, he attributes to DBCP.

The EPA listed the chemical as a carcinogen in 1975, and in conversations with other plaintiffs, one hears stories even worse than Picado's, tales of villages plagued with miscarriages, birth defects and cancer.

Even this laundry list of grievances, however, doesn't begin to explain the importance of this case in the minds of the farmers. In Costa Rica, banana workers usually earn $200 to $300 a month, or about half of the national average, and the struggle for decent wages has become intertwined with the DBCP issue.

American produce companies have a long and often unsavory history in the region, marked by labor disputes, land grabs and political machinations, some so blatant that they spawned the term "banana republic" in reference to the corporations' unchecked power. The plunder of Central America at the hands of the fruit companies is part of the regional folklore, incorporated in the works of Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As unlikely as it may seem, the reproductive problems of these aging agricultural workers have in a sense become a rallying point for national pride.

For the plaintiffs, that fact has magnified the importance of next week's trial in the 116th District Court well beyond the prospect, however attractive, of pocketing a few thousand dollars apiece. "I hope that the outcome will show that we are all equally valuable as people in the eyes of God," Picado says gravely.

His victory is far from certain, however. Nobody is disputing that DBCP is, in the words of one of Misko's colleagues, "the most horrifying testicular toxin on this planet." But most scientific data linking the poison to other illnesses besides sterility comes from lab animals, not humans. Further, it is virtually impossible to determine exactly how much of the chemical the plaintiffs were exposed to from quarter-century-old memories and sketchy work documents. Picado does have a low sperm count, but Dole's medical experts attribute that to a natural condition called varicocele, which they say they've found in three of the five bellwethers (a urologist for the plaintiffs disputes that diagnosis). Perhaps most likely to raise eyebrows among the jurors is the fact that Picado has three children, two girls and a boy, all born after his exposure to DBCP.

The vulnerabilities of Picado's case aren't unique. Initially, nine bellwethers were randomly selected by a court official, but Misko's team decided to drop four of them as virtually unwinnable cases. Of the five remaining plaintiffs, all but one have children, and their exposure varies in duration from months, as in Picado's case, to mere days.

The possible holes in the bellwether cases have Murphy convinced he can win for Dole. "Most of them were not around the chemical at all," he says of the plaintiffs. "Among the five bellwethers, there are nine children, seven of them born after they say they were exposed. And the guy that has no kids has a normal sperm count!"

Murphy shakes his head as he sits behind his broad desk in a Turtle Creek office building. "I have absolutely no problem with these guys," he says. "I know they're not bad guys. I sympathize with their problems--but we didn't cause them."


Fred Misko has no doubts about the strength of his clients' case--none he admits to, anyway. "This is the worst case of corporate malfeasance I have ever seen," he says in his mild yet penetrating voice.
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