By Stefan Armbruster
BBC News Online business reporter
A US court has ruled that Coca-Cola's main Latin American bottler can stand trial for allegedly hiring right-wing paramilitaries to kill and intimidate union leaders in Colombia.
The United Steelworkers of America and the International Labour Rights Fund brought the $500m (£318m) suit on behalf of Colombia's food industry union Sinaltrainal.
"The judge found we can proceed against the corporation, which is a precedent," Dan Kovalik, who represents the Colombian trade unionists, told BBC News Online.
Coca-Cola and its bottlers have rejected the allegations made by the suit.
Panamerican Beverages (Panamco), Coca-Cola's main bottler in Latin America of which it owns about 25%, and Colombian bottler Bebidas y Alimentos now face a trial.
But District Judge Jose E Martinez in Miami excluded the Atlanta-based drinks giant Coca-Cola and its Colombian unit because its bottling agreement did not give it "explicit control" over labour issues in Colombia.
"We're pleased with the decision and grateful to the court," a Coca-Cola spokeswoman said.
Most dangerous place
Panamco, the largest soft drinks bottler in Latin America, has said the ruling was unclear as to whether the case could proceed and it would seek clarification.
"The opinion could be clearer, but it is clear to us that Panamco was not dismissed," said Mr Kovalik.
Lawyers for the Colombian trade unionists plan to appeal against Coca-Cola's exclusion.
The suit was filed in July 2001 over the murder by paramilitaries of four union members between 1995 and 1996 at the Coca-Cola bottling plant belonging to Bebidas y Alimentos in Carepa, 250 kilometres northwest of the capital Bogota.
Colombia, where the civil war claims over 20,000 lives annually, is considered the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
It was the first time a US judge has ordered a company to stand trial for alleged human-rights violations committed overseas under the Alien Tort Claims Act.
While there are still a number of legal hurdles, Panamco faces the embarrassing prospect of Colombian trade unionists detailing abuses, in the courtroom.
Similar lawsuits are pending around the US against corporations including oil company Talisman, for its operations in Sudan, and engineering firm Unocal over torture and slave labour allegations in Burma.
Corporations usually succeed in getting such cases dismissed before they reach trial.
No trial date has been set for the Panamco case.