In a small courtroom on the second floor of the Broward County Southern Regional Courthouse in Hollywood, a giant corporation is fighting claims that it has crippled the economy of a small South American country. But you'd never know it from the sleepy setting.
There is no TV camera, no impudent reporter, no urgency whatsoever. Instead there are expensive lawyers in nice suits, boxes of documents occupying every corner and the back row of benches, flip charts stacked against the walls, and a three-foot-by-five-foot, blown-up photo of several Pacific white shrimp (Penaeus vannamei). Thus magnified the crustaceans take on a nightmarish quality. But they still look good enough to eat, especially around lunchtime when the proceedings have been dragging on for a couple hours. "I don't want anyone to get hungry for shrimp gumbo," says Fort Lauderdale attorney Walter "Skip" Campbell as he displays the photo to the jury.
This case is all about the shrimp, specifically why they've been dying on Ecuadorian farms since the early '90s. The coastal region near Guayaquil has the largest concentration of shrimp farms in the country and has therefore seen the most damage. The name of the malady that has allegedly killed the sea creatures is even taken from the name of a geographical region of Ecuador: Taura syndrome.
The plaintiff in the case, and Campbell's client, is Desarrollo Industrial Bioacuatico S.A., a huge shrimp-farming corporation. DIBSA officials believe pesticide-laden runoff from nearby banana plantations has polluted their waters and caused Taura syndrome.
E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company Inc., more commonly referred to as DuPont, is the defendant. A Delaware company, DuPont manufactures Benlate, a much-maligned fungicide that has garnered the company hundreds of lawsuits throughout the United States. DIBSA believes Benlate is one of the pesticides killing off the shrimp.
The case landed in Broward County because DuPont's sales and distribution operations for South America are located in South Florida. In an effort to keep the lengthy trial from gumming up the circuit court, a retired judge -- O. Edgar Williams -- is hearing the case.
Shrimp aren't the only things larger than life in these proceedings. There's big money at stake, too. The Ecuadorian government puts damages to the shrimping industry at $120 million per year since the early '90s. Campbell says his client has lost $60 million in revenue. Shrimp farming is big business in Ecuador, third only to bananas and oil in importance to that nation's economy. In 1998, for example, the country exported 113,000 tons of shrimp, primarily to France, Spain, and the United States.
Then there are the figures with which DuPont has been dealing. The company introduced Benlate, a trade name for DuPont's formulation of the chemical benomyl, in the early '70s as a fungicide effective on all types of crops. Since the late '80s, however, Benlate has been the target of an avalanche of accusations and lawsuits, claiming everything from birth defects in humans to ruined crops to the fact that it simply doesn't work. One particular formulation of Benlate, since pulled from the market, has cost DuPont more than $1 billion in legal fees and payments to growers. Florida tree and ornamental-plant growers have been among the most persistent litigants.
In April 1994 DuPont paid $214 million to settle 220 Benlate cases in the United States. In June company spokesman Mike Ricciuto told The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, that, with those kinds of payouts, the Benlate saga is probably drawing to a close. "It's hard to predict, but I do think that most of the issues have been uncovered now and no one's expecting anything new," he said. "We're on the downward side of things."
The shrimp case, however, is something new. No other Benlate litigation has claimed the fungicide harms aquatic life. If the plaintiff prevails, at least 29 other Ecuadorian shrimp farmers are ready to grab a piece of the multinational chemical company, Campbell says. "They are all different cases, they all have different potential losses," he explains.
It's a lawyer's dream.
The atmosphere in the Hollywood courtroom is congenial if occasionally combative. Campbell has a lawyer's gift for good-natured ribbing and controlled indignation. "Stop looking into my brain!" he recently shouted at lead defense attorney Thomas Sherouse, who had raised an objection about Campbell's questioning of an expert witness. The defense attorneys seem taciturn and beleaguered, as if this whole thing has already gone on way too long for their liking. Williams tries to keep up with it all, but you get the sense he's often not on the same page as everybody else.
Nine weeks into the trial, the plaintiffs have yet to complete their witness list. They expect to finish sometime this week. So far they've called marine biologists, DuPont scientists, university professors, and an Ecuadorian economist. For their part defense lawyers have a witness list with 64 names on it, including everything from experts on banana operations to authorities on Ecuadorian law to DuPont scientists.
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Last week Dr. Pablo Intriago, a plaintiff's witness, was on the stand. Speaking through an interpreter, Intriago described the collapse of the shrimping industry in 1992, an El Niño year when twice the normal rain fell on Ecuador. He told of tides on Ecuadorian shores that can reach 20 feet and noted there are four of them per day because of the country's location near the equator. He also relayed that banana farms are only five to ten miles from the shrimp farms, and that water moves from plantation areas to the sea.
Does that mean there's Benlate in the water? Such a direct question is not in the parlance of high-paid lawyers doing battle in court. DIBSA claims it found chemical residue typical of Benlate in its ponds. DuPont lawyers questioned the finding, pointing out that there are many other pesticides besides Benlate in use on the banana farms. Intriago "said a lot of things helpful to us," DuPont spokesman Ricciuto says. "There are a great many pesticides that are a million times more toxic to shrimp. Benlate was considered one of the least toxic. Virtually all pesticides can have a toxic effect."
DuPont contends that Taura syndrome is caused by a virus, not exposure to Benlate. There is some science to back this up -- a 1995 article in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms supports the viral hypothesis.
DIBSA argues the pesticides harm the shrimp's immune systems. "If I gave you an analogy, it is like HIV in humans," says Campbell. "It breaks down the immune system so any type of virus, pathogen, or bacteria eats [the shrimp] up." Indeed DuPont never assessed the potential for harm on this particular species of shrimp, he adds. "They went into countries and didn't do any type of testing." The big-stakes battle over little crustaceans is likely to continue for at least another two weeks.