Chiquita Brands International has been ordered to pay $38.3m in damages by a US court to the families of victims murdered by a Colombia paramilitary group.

The North Carolina-based banana supplier was accused of funding the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), classed as a terrorist organisation by the US, dating as far back as 1997.

Damages awarded by a south Florida jury on Monday (10 June) to the eight families concerned follow a guilty plea in 2007 by Chiquita to the charges. However, according to EarthRights International, the company never paid compensation to the victims’ families, prompting the US-based human rights organisation to file a class-action lawsuit that year.

“The jury’s decision reaffirms what we have long asserted: Chiquita knowingly financed the AUC, a designated terrorist organisation, in pursuit of profit, despite the AUC’s egregious human rights abuses,” the non-profit group claimed in a statement.

“By providing over $1.7m in illegal funding to the AUC from 1997 to 2004, Chiquita contributed to untold suffering and loss in the Colombian regions of Urabá and Magdalena, including the brutal murders of innocent civilians.”

EarthRights International suggested the claims against Chiquita stretch to “hundreds more victims”, which may be resolved through other trials or settlement among “several” additional cases brought against the company in 2008.

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“This verdict sends a powerful message to corporations everywhere: profiting from human rights abuses will not go unpunished,” Marco Simons, EarthRights International’s general counsel, said in the statement.

“These families, victimised by armed groups and corporations, asserted their power and prevailed in the judicial process.”

Contacted by Just Food, Chiquita said it plans to appeal the verdict.

“The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many, including those directly affected by the violence there, and our thoughts remain with them and their families,” the company said in a statement.

“However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims. While we are disappointed by the decision, we remain confident that our legal position will ultimately prevail.”

According to EarthRights International, Chiquita’s guilty plea to funding terrorists in Colombia followed an enquiry by the US Justice Department.

The organisation claimed Chiquita “made regular monthly payments, totalling more than $1.7m, to security forces controlled by the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia, or AUC, a brutal paramilitary organisation known for mass killing and designated by the United States Government as a terrorist organisation”.

Meanwhile, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, one of a host of US law firms representing the plaintiffs, suggested the payments to AUC by Chiquita were also responsible for “facilitating shipments of arms, ammunition and drugs, despite knowing that the AUC was an illegal organisation engaged in a reign of terror”.

Agnieszka Fryszman, the chair of Cohen Milstein’s human rights practice and one of the attorneys in the case, said in a statement: “Our clients risked their lives to come forward to hold Chiquita to account, putting their faith in the United States justice system.

“The verdict does not bring back the husbands and sons who were killed, but it sets the record straight and places accountability for funding terrorism where it belongs: at Chiquita’s doorstep.”

The damages awarded to the victims are what Cohen Milstein referred to as the first round from the “bellwether plaintiffs” following a six-week trial that began on 22 April. The second is scheduled for 15 July.