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ROCHESTER, N.Y.—A group of undocumented workers who are plaintiffs in a New York personal injury lawsuit should be allowed to testify by video from Guatemala and Mexico because they would face undue hardship by returning to the United States, according to a recent New York appellate court decision.
The case, Hugo Rafael Ramirez Gabriel et al. vs. Johnston's L.P. Gas Service Inc., involves nine migrant workers who were injured in a 2005 propane gas explosion at a farm camp in Schroeppel, N.Y., for Anthony DeMarco & Sons Inc. The workers were citizens of Guatemala or Mexico, and each of them had been working illegally in the United States at the time of the accident, according to court records.
The men sued Johnston's, which filled some propane tanks at the explosion site, and Raytheon Co., which allegedly manufactured a stove that was involved in the explosion. Some of the men also received workers compensation settlements from DeMarco.
Most of the men had returned to their countries by February 2011, and they asked in court filings to testify by video conference against the various defendants. However, their request was denied in August 2011 by the New York Supreme Court after the defendants argued that the workers' hardship was self-imposed by their illegal entry to the United States.
In a unanimous decision Friday, an appellate division of the New York Supreme Court said that the workers should be allowed to testify via video.
The court said that the men were “impoverished migrant workers who were severely injured” and had “no reasonable hope of returning for trial.” The ruling cited previous case law in which a man who was deported to China was allowed to give video testimony in a workers comp case.
“Under these circumstances, to deprive plaintiffs of the opportunity to testify at trial via video would be tantamount to depriving them of their day in court,” the ruling reads. “To the extent that plaintiffs such as those in this case are precluded from testifying, it could inhibit their ability to pursue legitimate personal injury claims in cases such as this one.”
The court also noted that the workers left the country to live frugally on their workers comp settlements or reunite with their families, rather than trying to avoid defendants in the lawsuit.
“Such departures... are hardly voluntary, and there is no indication that any plaintiff left to avoid examination before or at trial,” the ruling reads.