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Farmworkers sue grower over baby's birth defects

Mar 2, 2006 | Palm Beach Post Attorneys representing Carlitos Candelario, the Immokalee boy born 14 months ago without arms and legs, announced Wednesday they had filed suit against his parents' agricultural employer, claiming the firm's negligence with toxic pesticides caused the catastrophic birth defects.

The suit claims that Ag-Mart Produce Inc., marketer of Santa Sweets tomatoes, "knew or should have known of the hazardous condition of the tomato fields, and the fact that the pesticides were hazardous to the health of its workers, including pregnant workers and their unborn fetuses."

 "As a direct and proximate result of the negligence of the defendant in spraying its fields with toxic pesticides and exposing these individuals, Carlitos was born with severe and permanent injuries and is totally incapacitated," the complaint claims.

The suit filed for the child's parents, Francisca Herrera, 19, and Abraham Candelario, 21, holds the company liable for medical and hospital costs, lifetime care costs, disability, disfigurement, pain and suffering and mental anguish, among other charges.

The attorney, who represents the family, would not put a dollar amount on the damages, but it is expected to run in the millions.

"As a direct result of what is happening out in the fields, Carlitos is the way he is," The plantiffs attorney told a jam-packed press conference in Miami. "The state of Florida needs to change its ways."

Don Long, president of Ag-Mart, based in Plant City, responded later Wednesday.

"We are deeply saddened by what Carlitos and his family have endured over the past year; it's a heartbreaking experience for any family," Long said in an e-mail to journalists.

"From the beginning, we cooperated fully with authorities conducting two independent investigations into this case, one by the Collier County Health Department, and the other by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services," Long continued. "Both investigations, which were exhaustive and thorough, found no link between pesticides and birth defects in children including Carlitos. We continue to cooperate with any agency still investigating this issue."

Carlitos was born on Dec. 17, 2004. His parents both worked in Ag-Mart fields in Florida and North Carolina during the time that Herrera was pregnant.

After The Palm Beach Post wrote about Carlitos and two other children with birth defects whose parents were Ag-Mart workers, the state of Florida launched an investigation. Soon after, Ag-Mart announced it had suspended the use of several pesticides that had been linked to birth defects in lab animals. It continues to use at least one — methyl bromide.

State health officials eventually ruled they could find no direct link between the pesticides and the birth defects. Still, the state Department of Agriculture in October fined Ag-Mart $111,200 for 88 violations of federal pesticide regulations.

The state of North Carolina also investigated and fined Ag-Mart $184,500, citing many of the same violations as Florida.

Ag-Mart has denied all charges. Attempts to negotiate the fines failed. The case has been turned over to an administrative law judge.

The suit against Ag-Mart by Carlitos' parents, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, claims the company should have foreseen that some of its female workers could become pregnant and that it was the company's responsibility "to provide reasonably safe conditions for the fetuses of its pregnant female workers."

The suit also echoes claims made by Florida and North Carolina agricultural investigators and lists many violations by Ag-Mart of federal pesticide regulations.

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