BUSINESS

B.C. mining company wants lawsuit by 7 injured Guatemalan protesters dismissed

04/08/2015 02:10 EDT | Updated 06/08/2015 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - Seven protesters hurt in a spray of rubber bullets outside a mine in Guatemala should not be allowed to sue the mine's Canadian parent company merely because it has an office in Vancouver, the firm's lawyer told B.C. Supreme Court.

Tahoe Resources Inc. (TSX: THO) is seeking dismissal of the civil lawsuit launched by plaintiffs in the Central American country on the basis that Canadian courts don't have jurisdiction, said defence lawyer Karen Carteri.

"Events in Guatemala, injuries suffered in Guatemala, have nothing to do with activities undertaken in the province of British Columbia," Carteri said Wednesday, adding Tahoe's headquarters is in Reno, Nevada.

"There are no business activities undertaken by Tahoe in British Columbia, except in respect of its listing on the (Toronto Stock Exchange)."

But the plaintiffs, who are all men, say they have "no faith" the Guatemalan legal system will hold the company accountable, and a Vancouver law firm is seeking to fight the case on their behalf.

The lawsuit stems from actions by security guards to disperse protesters who had amassed outside the gates at the Escobal Mine on April 27, 2013.

Adolfo Garcia claims a projectile lodged in his spine when he was shot in the back. Luis Monroy said his sense of smell was destroyed when he was shot in the face.

The others, ranging in age from 17 to 40, are farmers and students who claim projectiles hit them in the legs, knee and foot. They allege shotguns, pepper spray and buck shot were also used.

Rubber bullets are often used by security forces as a less lethal means to disperse protests or riots.

The suit claims Tahoe is liable for either authorizing the use of excessive force or negligence for not preventing the violence outside the silver mine.

Prosecutors in Guatemala have charged the mine's security chief, Alberto Rotondo, with assault, aggravated assault and obstruction of justice. The claims haven't been proven in court.

Rotondo was contracted by the Guatemalan mine owner, Minera San Rafael, a branch owned by Tahoe.

In court, Carteri told a judge that permitting the case to go forward would involve obtaining voluminous Spanish documents only accessible in Guatemala, and compelling Spanish-speaking witnesses to travel to Canada.

It would also open the floodgates to countless claims in Canadian courts, merely because an "indirect parent" company of a foreign subsidiary sought financing on Canadian capital markets, she added.

A Guatemalan court is the most appropriate forum for the plaintiffs' claims, Carteri said. She noted the men have also launched a lawsuit there seeking damages.

The plaintiffs contend the central issue in the case is whether a Canadian company has any responsibility under Canadian law for the conduct of the security staff, according to documents filed with the court in response to Tahoe's motion for dismissal.

Their lawyers are expected to argue over the three-day hearing that Tahoe is trying to skirt judicial scrutiny and intends to exploit a gap in transnational law, in which "serious corporate misconduct" can occur without reparations.

"In Guatemala, judicial independence does not exist and the rule of law is extremely weak," states the response. "Accordingly there is no real prospect that Tahoe can be held accountable there for its conduct."

Fiona Koza, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International who attended the hearing, said the organization is concerned people won't have access to justice even though the company is incorporated in B.C.

"There should be remedy in Canada."

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