Testimony got underway Wednesday in the third in a series of lawsuits targeting the hog industry in North Carolina, with neighbors accusing pork giant Smithfield Foods of practices that put so much stench into the air they can’t enjoy their yards nearby.
Open lagoons for hog waste and the standard practice of spraying a mixture of water, feces and urine into the air to fertilize feed crops have already generated a pair of multimillion-dollar verdicts in these cases. The third suit targets farms in Pender County, where a half dozen neighbors have sued Murphy-Brown, Smithfield’s hog-owning division.
An attorney for Smithfield said the trial at the Raleigh federal courthouse likely will last several weeks.
Legal teams for the two sides presented wildly different views of the company. For Michael Kaeske, the Texas attorney representing neighbors, Smithfield and the companies it bought as the pork industry consolidated around 2000 is a powerful political player that keeps state regulators in check and has been unwilling to install technology to clean up its operations.
The company has “substantially and unreasonably interfered” with people’s enjoyment of their property, Kaeske said, a point of law he hopes the jury will agree with when it comes time to deliver a verdict.
Smithfield’s team said the neighbors are overstating the smell and exaggerating the effectiveness of expensive new technologies, targeting a company with deep pockets instead of some of the smaller operations nearby that use the same methods. None of the neighbors in this suit complained about these farms for 20 years, attorney James Neale said. Two of them moved away and came back, he said, showing there’s no nuisance.
Kaeske’s team showed pictures of filthy hogs and sprayers flinging brown liquid into the air. They showed deer camera footage from the middle of the night, when trucks rolled by 30 feet from a neighbor’s bedroom to pick up hog carcasses. He promised testimony on DNA markers that will show hog waste settling on neighbors’ property.
“There is literally pig feces on the side of people’s homes,” he said.
Neale showed pictures of a basketball court, gardens, a trampoline, a child’s playhouse, rocking chairs on porches and a deer stand near the farms in question. He promised testimony from neighbors not involved in the lawsuit who would say there can be a smell, but it’s not the overpowering matter the lawsuit claims.
“It’s a great place to live,” Neale said. “It’s not a place swarming with flies or buzzards. It’s not a place where rocking chairs have been pulled off porches.”
Neale scoffed at Kaeske’s tale of an expert who visited area hog farms for tests and had to take half a dozen showers to wash away the stench. Kaeske said the man got strange looks on his plane ride home and questions from his co-workers after he got home. He eventually threw away his glasses because the plastic had absorbed the smell, Kaeske said.
Ridiculous, Neale said. There were hog farmers in the courtroom Wednesday with no apparent stench. Neale called the story “insulting to those people.”
This is one of several connected lawsuits, and they’re coming up one at a time before U.S. District Judge Earl Britt.
Farmers say the suits threaten agriculture in North Carolina, and the General Assembly passed legislation earlier this year over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto to make future suits harder to win.
An initial $51 million judgment against Smithfield in April spooked farmers and rural legislators who fear the company, now owned by a conglomerate in China, could pull its hogs out of the farms it contracts with across eastern North Carolina, decimating the economy. Damages in that suit were dialed down significantly, though, because of a state cap on punitive damages juries aren’t told about when they decide the award.
A second $25 million judgment, which will be similarly capped, has given neighbors suing the company a 2-0 record so far. The cases have drawn national attention, and attorneys from other states were in the courtroom Wednesday to witness opening statements.
Hundreds of hogs are penned in buildings with slatted floors on these farms. Their waste falls through the floor and gets washed into open lagoons, where bacteria digest some of the waste. Liquid is pumped from the lagoon and sprayed on fields to keep the ponds from overflowing.
Weather patterns affect the smell, and Kaeske said that uncertainty makes things worse. Neighbors can’t plan a child’s birthday party, he said, without worrying the smell will be bad that day and embarrass the child.
“You never know how bad it will be,” he said. “Some days, you won’t smell it at all.”
Neale said the decades of hog industry history that Kaeske walked the jury through during opening statements was largely irrelevant. This case deals only with a few farms between 2011 and 2018, he told jurors. Lagoons and spray fields are allowed by state regulations that get renewed every five years, and those methods are not on trial, he said.
Kaeske said the plaintiffs hope these lawsuits will force Smithfield to make improvements.
“They’ve come to realize that nothing’s going to change unless they come here in front of you,” he said.