(c) 2017, The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON - A U.S. jury in Washington declined to award damages Thursday in a trial testing claims by the first six of 2,000 Ecuadoran farmers who allege that they were poisoned by an American security contractor in a years-long coca-eradication campaign by the U.S. and Colombian governments.
Human rights attorneys for the farmers said trials would continue, but the verdict marked a victory for the contractor, McLean, Va.-based DynCorp International. The farmers accused the firm of recklessly spraying them, their families and crops when fumigant drifted south across the Colombia-Ecuador border.
The spraying was coordinated by DynCorp and conducted by pilots working for a subcontractor and also at times by pilots for the Colombian National Police, evidence showed. The 10-person jury found DynCorp responsible for the subcontractor's pilots between 2000 and 2007, but not for employees of Colombian law enforcement.
Because farmers could not say which pilot was at the controls of any individual plane, the jury rejected any claim before roughly April 2003 - the time frame when the Colombian police agency was engaged and when the six farmers in the case alleged they were sprayed, according to court filings and both parties.
Attorneys for the farmers sought damages ranging up to $500,000 a person, not counting potential punitive damages, if DynCorp were found liable for inflicting emotional distress and recklessly spraying the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in the popular weed killer Roundup.
The verdict came in an initial trial that both sides had agreed to use as a test to shape the resolution of remaining cases.
Attorneys for the farmers said they were disappointed by the verdict but pleased jurors found DynCorp could be held responsible for its subcontractor's actions after April 2003. The attorneys said that they would continue to fight on behalf of "a significant number" of farmers who say they were sprayed after that point.
"We look forward to continuing to pursue a full measure of justice for those harmed and to send a strong message that no firm should be allowed to absolve itself of responsibility after committing such actions," plaintiffs' attorney Theodore J. Leopold said.
The next trial could come as soon as December, and it could take "four or five tries" before both sides are satisfied that representative verdicts are reached for the large group of plaintiffs, said co-counsel Terrence P. Collingsworth, director of International Rights Advocates.
In a statement, DynCorp said, "The unanimous jury verdict in DynCorp's' favor follows a series of earlier rulings in which the court rejected plaintiffs' claims that the spraying operations had resulted in physical injuries and property damages."
Over an eight-day trial, DynCorp attorneys denied that anyone acted recklessly or intentionally to spray the farmers and argued there was no evidence of spray drifting at the times and places alleged by farmers.
No spray mission using the Monsanto-manufactured herbicide was conducted near the Putumayo border without direction and prior approval of the State Department and the Colombian government, defense attorney Eric G. Lasker said, which were cooperating under Washington's $10 billion Plan Colombia counternarcotics effort.
One juror reached after the verdict said the panel was torn, sympathetic to the farmers' claims but divided over DynCorp's liability.
"We felt like our hands were tied once we made that decision," that DynCorp was not responsible for police pilots, said the juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity to relay a view of the closed-door deliberations.
"I don't think anyone felt comfortable about it, because we certainly felt for the Ecuadorans. We didn't have any reason to discount or disbelieve the things they experienced, which were very moving in several cases. But the decision that would feel the best wasn't the same decision the law was telling us we needed to make," the juror said.
Colombia ended spraying in 2015, citing concerns of a cancer link to glyphosate, and agreed to pay Ecuador $15 million in 2013 to resolve allegations at the International Court of Justice.
Ecuadoran authorities at one point reported that spraying prompted at least 60 percent of farmers on the border to abandon their farms, damaged crops, and caused incidents of high fever, vomiting, diarrhea and skin problems.
"What one first felt was the itchiness in the eyes and nose, and then after that in the throat," farmer Victor Mestanza testified during the trial. "But the rash, that didn't come until the following day."
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