Lawyers for the Colombians say that argument conflicts with U.S. criminal law, which generally makes the high-level decision maker in a conspiracy more liable than someone who was simply following those orders. That should apply in this civil case as well, they say. Chiquita, they argue, knew the AUC was killing civilians even if it didn't know the specifics.
"It does not make a lot of sense because then the people who gave the orders, but did not know the victims' names, are not responsible, and only the actual trigger-pullers have done something wrong," said Paul Wolf, who represents several thousand Colombian plaintiffs.
Still, Chiquita points to a recent 11th Circuit ruling that a former Bolivian defense minister couldn't be held liable for extrajudicial killings even though he was in a helicopter directing military personnel where to fire weapons. The court ruled there wasn't a sufficient connection between the minister's orders and the deaths that resulted.
The payments to the AUC were not the first made by Chiquita against the backdrop of Colombia's long civil conflict. Previously, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — known by its Spanish FARC acronym — demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from Chiquita and other companies or their employees and operations would be attacked.
The AUC was formed in 1997 to unite several right-wing militias to battle FARC and its supporters. The resulting campaign, supported by top Colombian political leaders, eventually resulted in 50,000 mostly civilian deaths and several infamous massacres, Colombian prosecutors say.
Chiquita, the largest U.S. banana seller, first had banana operations in Colombia in 1899. The company sold its Colombian subsidiary Banadex in 2004.
Chiquita's second argument involves the Supreme Court's recent decision involving the Alien Tort Statute, a law dating to 1789 used by lawyers representing victims of torture, extrajudicial killings and war crimes to seek damages in U.S. courts. That law allows claims for violations of the "laws of nations," U.S. treaties and the Torture Victims Protection Act.
Chiquita contends that charges in the Colombian lawsuits have no connection to the U.S. under the new Supreme Court decision.
"Instead, they involve allegations that Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary groups tortured and killed Colombians in Colombia," the company's court filing says, meaning a U.S. federal judge has no jurisdiction.
The Colombians' lawyers, however, argue that Chiquita differs from the Dutch oil company in the Kiobel case because it is based in the U.S., decisions about making the AUC payments were made in this country and Chiquita does a robust U.S. business. Wolf said the 11th Circuit could issue a ruling that would bolster human rights cases that suffered a blow in the Supreme Court.
"It is an opportunity to establish and important precedent and preserve this area of human rights law," Wolf said.
Associated Press writer Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this story.
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.