July 24 (Reuters) - Chiquita Brands International Inc has won the dismissal of U.S. lawsuits by more than 4,000 Colombians who sought to hold the produce company liable for the deaths of relatives killed in their country's bloody civil war.
By a 2-1 vote, a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Miami said on Thursday that U.S. courts lack power to review the claims because all relevant conduct took place outside the country and Chiquita's mere presence in the United States did not confer jurisdiction.
Chiquita in March 2007 pleaded guilty to a U.S. criminal charge and paid a $25 million fine for having made payments from 1997 through February 2004 to the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known in Spanish as AUC.
The company has long said it was blackmailed into making the payments or else risk violence against its workers.
Relatives of banana plantation workers, political organizers and others whose deaths were linked to the AUC sought to hold Chiquita liable under laws such as the Alien Tort Statute, which lets non-U.S. citizens bring some claims in U.S. courts.
But in April 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co said the 1789 law is presumed to cover only violations in the United States, unless violations elsewhere "touch and concern" U.S. territory "with sufficient force."
Writing for the 11th Circuit majority, Circuit Judge David Sentelle, who normally sits in Washington, D.C., said that limit barred the Chiquita lawsuits, even if it made it harder to fight human rights abuses.
"Noble goals cannot expand the jurisdiction of the court granted by statute," he wrote.
Circuit Judge Beverly Martin dissented, saying Chiquita's decision making occurred in the United States.
"By failing to enforce the ATS under these circumstances, I fear we disarm innocents against American corporations that engage in human rights violations abroad," she wrote.
Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer for some Colombian plaintiffs, said in an interview, "We are very disappointed in the ruling. It takes an extreme view of Kiobel, and we plan to seek further review in the 11th Circuit and the Supreme Court if necessary."
He added that some lawsuits raise claims against Chiquita under U.S. state laws, or against individuals under the federal Torture Victims Protection Act, that deserve to be pursued.
Ed Loyd, a Chiquita spokesman, said the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company has "great sympathy" for the Colombians who suffered, but that the court's decision was correct.
"The responsibility for the violent crimes committed in that country belongs to the perpetrators, not to the innocent people and companies they extorted," he said.
In March, Chiquita agreed to merge with Ireland's Fyffes, creating the world's largest banana supplier. The merger has yet to close.
The case is Cardona et al v. Chiquita Brands International Inc et al, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-14898. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Toni Reinhold)