Lawyers seek to move a lawsuit against the sugar barons to Palm Beach County.
WEST PALM BEACH — Two dozen families in the Dominican Republic are accusing one of Palm Beach County’s most powerful sugar producers of using thugs to force them from their homes at gunpoint and destroying their houses and their belongings.
In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court, attorneys for 24 of the 60 families that were left homeless claim the armed forces were paid by Central Romana, a leading sugar company in the island nation that is controlled by the Fanjul Corp. in West Palm Beach.
The January 2016 raid has been decried by international human rights groups as evidence of how Dominicans are increasingly being abused by the politically connected sugar cane industry.
A spokesman for the Fanjul Corp., which operates Florida Crystals and other sugar companies, acknowledged that it has “a minority interest” in Central Romana.
“While we cannot comment on the specifics of pending litigation, these allegations have no merit, and we will vigorously defend the lawsuit,” the company said in a statement.
Philadelphia lawyer Robert Vance and Melbourne attorney Shauna Curphey, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the families, didn’t respond to emails or phone calls for comment.
At a 2018 meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, one of the victims of the raid pleaded for help.
“Thanks to God we are still alive and thanks to God I can give a voice to many people who no one listens to,” Maria Magdalena Alvarez Galvez said during the panel discussion titled: “Bitter Sugar in Dominican Republic: The Sugar Industry and Human Rights.’”
The raid and the bulldozing of the homes was devastating to the poor residents of El Seibo, in the eastern part of the country, she said. Even more distressing was that no authorities stepped forward to help.
“We Dominicans don’t have a government that defends us,” she said.
In the lawsuit, Vance and Curphey acknowledge that they face an uphill battle to convince U.S. District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz that the suit against the Fanjul Corp. and Central Romana should be tried in South Florida.
But, they said, it is the only way the families can receive justice.
“The Dominican courts are notoriously corrupt,” they wrote. As evidence, they pointed out that the Dominican government in 2006 sued a U.S. company in Delaware. It didn’t trust its own courts to fairly weigh allegations that the company dumped coal ash that caused birth defects, they claim.
Further, they said, the family-run Fanjul Corp. “wields outsized influence” in the nation.
“Fanjul is the largest landholder and the largest employer in the Dominican Republic, as well as the leading producer of sugar,” the attorneys wrote. “Given its influence, (the families) would not have a fair opportunity to fully litigate their claims.”
While the raid occurred in the Dominican Republic, the Fanjuls were involved in the decision-making. Much of the evidence the families will need to prove their claims is stored in company offices in West Palm Beach, they said.
Palm Beach Gardens attorney Greg Schell, who as the longtime executive director of Florida Rural Legal Services frequently battled the Fanjuls over its treatment of workers, said the lawsuit faces an uncertain future.
Vance and Curphey are suing the Fanjul Corp. for violating Dominican, as well as, U.S. laws.
In recent years, American courts have been loathe to hear cases involving tragedies that occurred on foreign soil even if U.S. companies were involved, Schell said.
Most notably, in decisions from 1986 to 2012, judges refused to hear lawsuits against the now defunct Texas-based Union Carbide Corp. in connection with a gas leak that killed as many as 8,000 people and injured an estimated 600,000 in Bhopal, India, in 1984. The cases were sent to India to be litigated.
In the lawsuit, Vance and Curphey don’t say how much they will be seeking for the families. But, they said, in addition to losing their homes and their belongings, some of the people, including children, were injured during the raid.
Alvarez said her former neighbors are desperate. “It’s very sad for them to live the way they do, without opportunities and to be told by the government that they can’t intervene,” she told the human rights group.
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.