(Editor’s Note: The following article is an extended version of one appearing in the June 11 print and digital editions of The Packer).

(June 11) Chiquita Brands International Inc. finalized a plea agreement and a $25 million fine with the Department of Justice in March, but the Cincinnati-based fruit giant’s legal problems stemming from payments its former Colombian subsidiary made to terrorist organizations in that country are not over yet.

Lawyers representing families of 173 people allegedly killed by those terrorist groups filed suit June 7 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking monetary damages from Chiquita.

Washington, D.C.-based attorney Paul Wolf said damages for those 173 victims could reach more than $1 billion. He also said the number of claims could grow into the thousands before the case goes to trial. In a news release, attorneys for the victims’ families said this could be the biggest wrongful death case in U.S. history.

Chiquita spokesman Mike Mitchell said in a statement June 7 that the company had not yet seen the lawsuit but denied allegations made by Wolf and other attorneys involved in the case that had appeared in the media. Mitchell reiterated Chiquita’s stance that it acted to protect the lives of its employees.

“Chiquita has already been the victim of extortion in Colombia,” Mitchell said. “We will not allow ourselves to become extortion victims in the United States. We will defend any preposterous suit of this nature vigorously.”

Wolf rejected claims that Chiquita acted under duress. Chiquita’s former subsidiary Banadex made more than 100 payments totaling more than $1.7 million to the Autodefensas Unidas de Columbia from 1997 to 2004. The lawsuit alleges that Banadex’s payments varied based on the amount of bananas the company shipped each month.

Wolf said it’s not uncommon for foreign companies to be faced with extortion in Columbia. However, he said Chiquita benefited from its relationship with the right-wing AUC, which forced the communist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia out of the Uraba growing region.

Chiquita also has admitted to making payment to the communist guerillas when that group controlled the area.

“If they did it one time it's duress,” Wolf said of the payments. “If they decided to stay there and make payments for seven years they had a choice. That’s not duress.”

Wolf also said that Chiquita’s plea agreement with the Department of Justice would make it difficult for the company to deny wrongdoing in this case.

Mitchell, however, said it became increasingly difficult for Chiquita to protect its workers and their families in the 1990s, pointing to a 1995 ambush that left 28 workers dead and two more murders in 1998. He said the protection payments were made only to safeguard Chiquita workers.

“It’s absolutely untrue for anyone to suggest these payments were made for any other purpose,” Mitchell said.