Farmworker Family's Ag-Mart Settlement Amount 'Significant'
TAMPA -- Despite a birth defect that left 3-year-old Carlitos with no legs, no right arm and a short bud for a left arm, other tots at his school gravitate toward his magnanimous personality, his attorney said Wednesday. When his friends see him, Carlitos points the bud toward them and pretends to fire it like a gun. The kids fall to the ground and laugh, feigning injury in their make-believe war. Carlitos' migrant worker parents won a significant battle Wednesday in their very real war against a Plant City-based agricultural company. Francisca Herrera, 20, and Abraham Candelario, 21, settled a lawsuit filed against Ag-Mart Produce, which sells fruits and vegetables under the name Santa Sweets. The couple claims working in Ag-Mart tomato fields and exposure to pesticides caused their boy's defects.Terms of the settlement have been kept private but the family's attorney, Andrew Yaffa, said the money is "significant." Carlitos will not have to worry about medical care the rest of his life. "Hopefully, someday, some way through medical research, they will be able to equip him with a wheelchair so he can gain some independence," Yaffa said. Carlitos' parents said the boy is representative of many more children affected by pesticides, but their families are afraid to come forward. Yaffa credited the family for exposing deplorable conditions in farm work and creating changes that will benefit others for years to come. Carlitos "represents millions of folks who work in our fields and are exposed to pesticides on a daily basis," Yaffa said. "This child represents change." Herrera and Candelario picked tomatoes in Immokalee and in North Carolina for Ag-Mart before and after Herrera became pregnant. They filed suit in 2006. Yaffa said the family and Ag-Mart came to an agreement after a 12-hour mediation meeting March 21. That deal was approved Wednesday by Circuit Judge Charlene Honeywell. Yaffa asked Honeywell to seal terms of the settlement to protect Carlitos from those who might exploit him, although the settlement dollars are in protected trust funds. Ag-Mart attorney Keith Wickenden said the company agreed with the closure of settlement information because Carlitos "does not live in the best of neighborhoods" and it would not be good for his financial status to become public knowledge. He declined comment after the hearing. Yaffa said the pesticides Carlos encountered while he was in the womb were devastating to his body's development. He is just learning to move on his own, although in a severely limited capacity. His parents will have access to the money to buy a house, buy a car and help him to live a normal life. They cannot touch the money for any purpose that does not immediately benefit Carlitos, Yaffa said. Carlitos is an outstanding 3-year-old, growing, laughing and talking. "He's brilliant," Yaffa said. With Yaffa translating, Herrera said her son is "perfect in every way" with the exception of his physical defect. Caring for their disabled child has been difficult but they are doing the best they can, she said. They were glad their case helped to expose problems. "His birth brought to light what was happening in the fields," Herrera said in Spanish. Carlitos was one of three babies born with severe birth defects within a seven-week period. All three mothers worked in the same tomato field and all three lived within 100 yards of one another. Herrera and Candelario have claimed that Ag-Mart managers did not adhere to seven-day waiting periods after spraying and before sending workers to pick crops. Sometimes, they claimed, workers were sent into the fields the day after spraying. Other times, crops were sprayed with pesticides while workers were in the fields. Agricultural officials said spot checks found no illegal pesticide residues. In 2005, North Carolina and Florida hit Ag-Mart with nearly 400 citations and fined the company about $300,000 for pesticide use from 1999 through 2003. In December, a judge in North Carolina recommended the dismissal of 271 of the pesticide violations. In March, an administrative judge in Tampa threw out almost all of the Florida charges, citing a lack of evidence. Yaffa said the North Carolina investigation is continuing. As part of the settlement, Ag-Mart did not have to admit wrongdoing, Yaffa said. He acknowledged, however, that Ag-Mart has changed their pesticide practices. In 2005, company officials said Ag-Mart would discontinue use of five of the six traditional agricultural chemicals known to cause birth defects. Yaffa said he hoped the company's goodwill would continue. "If it doesn't," he said, "they are going to be seeing a lot of us."
Reporter Thomas W. Krause can be reached at (813) 259-7698 or [email protected]