A second jury trial in North Carolina against Smithfield Foods ended last Friday, and the jurors’ verdict was “guilty” once more in the nuisance case. This time an Eastern Carolina couple was the beneficiary of a $25 million award, reported the Raleigh News & Observer.
“Elvis and Vonnie Williams live in Duplin County, near a 4,700-hog farm owned by Joey Carter, a former Beulaville police chief,” writes Anne Blythe, author of the Raleigh News & Observer article. “The Williamses did not sue their neighbor, though. They sued Smithfield Foods as part of a legal strategy that a team of lawyers began crafting in 2014.”
The jury reportedly deliberated for three days before making its decision.
This is the second of 26 lawsuits by 500 neighbors complaining about hog operations in eastern North Carolina, wrote Farm Journal’s PORK digital editor Sara Brown in an earlier article on Farm Journal’s PORK. Testimonies during the first three-week trial say Smithfield should have taken more steps to modernize manure technologies on the farm like in other states, Brown wrote.
Even though pig farmers in North Carolina are doing nothing illegal, the lawyers have targeted Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world. New technologies are used when economically feasible, industry leaders say, but Smithfield has said some of those technologies are too expensive at this time. They estimate it would cost approximately $1 million per farm to change their manure-handling systems.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has been closely following the lawsuits, and believes the claims “set a dangerous precedent for American livestock agriculture.”
“For the second time in as many months, a North Carolina verdict has come back in favor of plaintiffs after a jury was prevented from visiting the farm subjected to baseless claims,” said Jim Heimerl, president of the National Pork Producers Council and a hog farmer from Johnstown, Ohio, in a statement. “We are deeply troubled by this decision against a farm that has operated responsibly and in compliance with state laws since 1985 and that maintains the highest standards of environmental and community stewardship.”
Large Awards Subsequently Reduced
In the first case, a federal jury awarded more than $50 million in damages to plaintiffs, reported Brown in this article. The jury held Smithfield Foods “responsible for intense odor and other disturbances that they say prevented them from enjoying their residences,” the article said. Read the court details here: McKiver et al v. Murphy-Brown, LLC.
That amount was reduced, however, in accordance with North Carolina law. The damage sentence was lowered from $50 million to $3.25 million.
“Senior U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt granted a motion made by attorneys for Murphy-Brown to impose North Carolina’s statutory cap on punitive damages,” wrote Brown in this article. “Under a 1995 state law, punitive damage awards are capped at three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.”
New Farm Act Adopted
In an effort to curtail future lawsuits, North Carolina’s state legislature passed a bill that could restrict litigation against large livestock operations, if the operation isn’t breaking any laws and the lawsuit is considered frivolous. This would likely make it more difficult to sue large livestock operations over odor, declining property values and other nuisances. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but last week, the legislature overrode the bill. Read this article to learn more.
While this ruling won’t negate the Smithfield lawsuits, it may help protect agriculture and forestry against future litigation. It includes these stipulations:
*Only people living within a half-mile of a farm can file a nuisance lawsuit
*Plaintiffs would be prohibited from obtaining punitive damages in court unless a farm was implicated in criminal convictions or government enforcement actions.
*The person filing suit must act within a year of a farming operation starting or undergoing a “fundamental” change. This does not include changes in ownership, technology, product or size of the operation.
Pig Farmers Face Multiple Challenges
The lawsuits come at a time when U.S. pork producers are facing difficult times, due to tariffs that threaten some of their biggest markets, an oversupply of protein, and the certainty that more pigs will be coming to market in coming months.
“American hog farmers already face serious headwinds, including export market uncertainty caused by ongoing trade disputes,” Heimerl said in the NPPC statement. “We can’t allow trial-lawyer abuse of our legal system to continue as it threatens the livelihood of livestock farming families, undermines the rural economy and unnecessarily increases food prices for consumers.”