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New UW Law graduate persuades food giant to improve water quality for Guatemalan villagers

Eric J. Harrison '12 worried everyone would think he was “bananas” for suing the giant Dole Food Co. to improve water and environmental quality near one of its contracted banana plantations in Guatemala.

But Harrison -- who previously designed clean water systems in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer -- cared so strongly about the impact of environmental degradation on local residents that the third-year law student at University of Washington School of Law went ahead and filed the suit in Seattle in 2011. In a shrewd move, he convinced a high-powered Seattle class action law firm, Hagens Berman, to file a companion suit against Dole in California last year.

Now no one is laughing. In January, Dole, the world’s largest producer of fresh fruit and vegetables, settled the California suit and agreed to work with Harrison and his nonprofit organization on mitigating water and other environmental problems affecting 4,500 people in the municipality of Ocós in southwestern Guatemala.

“I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome,” says Harrison, 32, a Montana native who just took his Washington bar exam and is waiting for the results. “Now Dole is doing the right thing, and we will be providing clean water to these communities. It makes me realize there are great things lawyers can do.”

“This case has as much impact as many very high-profile cases I’ve handled, and Eric should be proud of his efforts,” says Steve Berman, a partner at Hagens Berman.

Connecticut-based Dole said in a release that it will collaborate with Harrison’s nonprofit group, Water and Sanitation Health, Inc., on a water filter project to assist the Guatemalan communities. While denying the lawsuit’s allegations, the produce giant said it’s “proud to contribute to these efforts.”

Harrison got involved after learning that a Guatemalan contractor who supplies Dole with bananas built a dam that caused extensive flooding, destroying local farmers’ crops and causing health problems. In addition, the contractor’s plantation allegedly contaminated local rivers with toxic chemicals – poisoning the villagers’ drinking water and fish -- and spread pesticides that made children sick. The villagers sued locally but their case was dismissed. Harrison, a nuclear engineer, flew down to Guatemala to conduct environmental tests.

Rather than bring the Guatemalan villagers to the U.S. to file suit, Harrison decided to sue Dole for deceptive practices, misrepresentation, and breach of contract, arguing that the company lied to him and other Washington state consumers. He cited Dole’s marketing materials, which claimed its banana growing practices were environmentally and socially responsible.

When a federal judge moved to dismiss the case because Harrison was not a licensed attorney, the resourceful law student brought in David D. Hancock '09, a Seattle criminal defense attorney and fellow Peace Corps volunteer, to serve as attorney of record and help him with the case. Harrison also consulted with UW Law Associate Professor Michael Townsend.

Harrison defeated Dole’s motion to dismiss the suit, then asked Dole officials to fly to Guatemala with him to see the environmental situation in Oós for themselves. They agreed. At that point he visited Berman, a nationally renowned class action attorney, and suggested his firm file a related class action suit in California. “I realized we needed a larger firm but I thought there was no way he would sign on,” Harrison marvels. “But he did and that was great.”

In December, company representatives met with Harrison and the plantation owner in Guatemala for three days to observe conditions. At the end of the trip, Dole wanted to talk settlement. In January, Dole announcement an agreement to settle the litigation.

Harrison recently returned to Guatemala to meet with plantation officials and develop an environmental mitigation plan. He says Dole and its contractor are working with him on a water filter project and protecting villagers from pesticide fumes. He’s doing the engineering and logistics and Dole is providing financial support.

Harrison hopes his legal case will nudge corporations to improve the social and environmental sustainability of their products. “My initial goal was clean water,” he says. “But what I’m seeing is that Dole is now aware of their actions and they’re doing the right thing. That’s cool.”

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