D.C. Circuit Hands DynCorp Big Win in U.S. Columbia War-on-Drugs Initiative

May 30, 2014

In its opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed a series of district court rulings dismissing the large majority of claims brought by three Ecuadorian provinces and over 2,000 individual Ecuadorian farmers in connection with counternarcotics aerial herbicide spraying operations in southern Colombia. Arias v. DynCorp, 752 F.3d 1011 (D.C. Cir. 2014).  DynCorp is a contractor to the U.S. Department of State and assists with the joint U.S.-Colombia war-on-drugs initiatives known as “Plan Colombia.”

In a unanimous decision, the D.C. Circuit first affirmed the district court’s ruling that the three Ecuadorian provinces did not have Article III standing to seek damages for alleged budgetary impacts of the spraying through increased costs for schools, health centers, and other infrastructure.  The court held that such damages did not constitute injury-in-fact and that the provinces also had failed to show that the expenditures were fairly traceable to the Plan Colombia spraying.  The court next affirmed the district court’s dismissal of 163 individual plaintiffs who had failed to submit complete responses to court-ordered questionnaires and affirmed the district court’s separate holding that the individual plaintiffs could not pursue claims for crop damages without admissible expert testimony.

The court then turned to the plaintiffs’ appeal of the district court’s decision to apply its summary judgment ruling on both the property damage and the personal injury claims of the 20 test plaintiffs to the entire plaintiff population.  While noting that this was a more troubling issue, the D.C. Circuit agreed with DynCorp that the district court acted within its discretion in interpreting one of the plaintiffs’ district court filings as indicating consent that a ruling as to the test plaintiffs would bind the non-test plaintiffs.  The court also held that the plaintiffs had waived this argument by failing to file a Rule 59(e) motion for reconsideration.

The cases were remanded to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and a jury trial was held for six test plaintiffs in 2015, resulting in a complete defense verdict.