Lawyers for security contractor DynCorp have accused a group of Ecuadorean farmers involved in a major legal battle against the company of repeatedly changing the facts of their claims. DynCorp asked the judge to dismiss several plaintiffs whose cases had been heading for trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The new allegations were filed late Tuesday afternoon in a pair of lawsuits brought by farmers who say DynCorp aircraft sprayed their land with powerful, and possibly toxic, chemicals while on missions to eradicate Colombian coca farms. The spraying program is a part of Plan Colombia, a controversial U.S. effort to eradicate the country’s cocaine production. Some 2,021 farmers claim they suffered health problems and financial losses after their property was covered with the herbicides.
In July, U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts allowed the plaintiffs’ lawyers to select 20 test cases from among their clients to go to trial. But according to DynCorp’s lawyers – a team from Washington, D.C., boutique Hollingsworth LLP — the test plaintiffs have begun changing their stories about when and how their farms were sprayed, and what kinds of health effects it has had on them and their families.
Between the time they filled out a batch of detailed questionnaires and a recent series of depositions, plaintiffs have offered conflicting answers about the years spraying happened, the number of aircraft involved, whether crops were sprayed and what illnesses they have suffered as a result, DynCorp argues.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Terry Collingsworth, a Washington-based partner with Conrad & Scherer, said DynCorp was “grossly exaggerating” what were in fact small discrepancies in his clients’ testimony.
“The defendants have consistently refused, strategically, to understand that the plaintiffs in this case are largely uneducated indigenous people living in the rain forest of Ecuador who don’t have watches, calendars, computers or diaries, or other record keeping systems,” Collingsworth said. “And that its natural there are going to be some minor inconsistencies when relating these terrible events that happened to them.”
According to DynCorp’s motion, one family had claimed that they were exposed to spraying while living at their “current home address” in Puerto Mestanza, a small town on the border of Ecuador and Colombia. At a deposition, however, the family said their home, both now and at the time of the spraying, was actually in a town 275 miles from the border.
Other examples provided in the motion: A man claimed at deposition that he had lost his sight as a result of the spraying, even though he had not previously in the lawsuit mentioned any vision problems. A woman who claimed in 2002 that the spraying had led to her husband’s death said recently that his illness began before his alleged exposure.
“[E]very time these test plaintiffs are asked about their alleged exposures to Plan Colombia spraying, they come forward with a different story – a pattern that defendants can only assume will continue if these cases ever get to trial,” the motion contends.
DynCorp’s lawyers argue that the shifting stories have made it impossible to prepare for the trials and asked Judge Roberts to dismiss the 20 test plaintiffs. They also asked him to require the remaining plaintiffs to either rewrite or recertify the questionnaires in which they explain their injuries. The DynCorp lawyers say that most of the questionnaires still do not contain any specific explanation of how the spraying caused individual injuries, despite explicit instructions from the court that they should.