BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A jury Thursday rejected claims that Alabama-based Drummond coal was to blame for the killing of three union leaders in Colombia, a defeat for labor in a test of whether companies can be held responsible in U.S. courtrooms for their conduct overseas.
Jurors sided with Drummond Ltd. and the head of its Colombian operations, Augusto Jimenez, in ruling against a lawsuit filed by relatives and the union of the dead men, killed by paramilitary gunmen six years ago.
The jury of five men and five women began deliberations late Wednesday afternoon following two weeks of testimony in the civil lawsuit against Drummond Ltd. and Mr. Jiminez, its president in Colombia.
Relatives of the dead men and their union filed suit accusing Drummond of arranging the killing of the labor leaders by paramilitary forces in Colombia in 2001.
The company denied any involvement with the slayings or with militia forces in the South American nation, where it operates a huge surface mine. The case was featured in a page-one article in The Wall Street Journal in 2003.
Lawyers in the case and outside experts said the suit was the first to go to trial against a U.S. corporation under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law, passed to fight piracy, that lets foreigners file suit in federal court for alleged wrongdoing overseas.
"We will be appealing swiftly," said plaintiff's attorney Terry Collingsworth.
Mr. Jimenez shook hands with his attorney and wiped tears from his eyes after the verdict. He declined comment, but a company statement said the verdict was "a long time coming."
"We have waited for five years for the opportunity to demonstrate what we knnew all along," the statement said.
Drummond Ltd. is a division of the privately owned Drummond Co. Inc., which was dismissed as a defendant before the trial began. Both companies are based in Alabama.
Valmore Locarno, president of the local union at Drummond's huge mine at La Loma, and another union official, Victor Orcasita, were pulled off a company bus and shot to death in March 2001.
Gustavo Soler, who succeeded Mr. Locarno as president, was murdered seven months later after being taken off a bus.
The families contend Drummond hired paramilitary forces to kill the men, and a paramilitary leader is charged with the murders of Messrs. Locarno and Orcasita in Colombia.
Lawyers for the men's families and their union, Sintramienergetica, told jurors the slayings followed months of escalating tension between the men and the company. Drummond helped the paramilitaries blamed for the murders by providing them safe haven on mine property and gasoline, they argued.
Drummond attorneys, while denying any role in the killings or ties to paramilitaries, said the deaths were a tragic part of years of violence in the South American country.
The judge told the jury that to win, the families and union had to prove Drummond knowingly aided the killers and committed what amounts to a war crime in Colombia.
Other U.S. companies have been accused of having ties to militias, which are illegal under Colombia law and considered terror groups by the U.S.
A congressional subcommittee held a hearing last month into the Colombian dealings of Drummond and Chiquita Brands International Inc., which admitted paying paramilitaries $1.7 million in protection money beginning in 1997.
The Justice Department fined Chiquita $25 million this year for making the payments.
More than 800 union members have been killed in Colombia in the last six years, according to government figures, making it the world's most dangerous country for labor. Only a few of the killings have been solved.