Lawmakers say nuisance lawsuits growing threat to agriculture
A federal jury decided Friday that the world's largest pork producer should pay $473.5 million to neighbors of three North Carolina industrial-scale hog farms for unreasonable nuisances they suffered from odors, flies and rumbling trucks.
On AUg. 3, the jury found that Smithfield Foods owes compensation to six neighbors who complained in their lawsuit that the company failed to stop "the obnoxious, recurrent odors and other causes of nuisance" resulting from closely packed hogs, which "generate many times more sewage than entire towns."
The jury awarded $23.5 million in compensatory damages and $450 million in punitive damages, which will be reduced to a total of $94 million under limits in state law.
The case comes after two previous, related lawsuits rocked agribusiness in the country's No. 2 pork-producing state. Juries in those two cases awarded damages of about $75 million intended to punish Smithfield, though those amounts also were required to be cut.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall was among those attending a special national agriculture roundtable highlighting the recent wave of nuisance lawsuits targeting North Carolina hog farms. The event brought together legislators and agriculture leaders to discuss the growing threat to farmers and exposed how out-of-state trial lawyers are using nuisance lawsuits to circumvent state right-to-farm laws.
The discussion centered on the economic impact of nuisance lawsuits on America’s farmers and rural communities.
“This is pitting neighbor against neighbor and community against community,” said Duvall. “The regulations need to be on the trial lawyers. We need to let our farmers and ranchers do what they do best, and that is feeding the world. They will not be a nuisance. They deserve a fair shot. They deserve to grow and succeed.”
U.S. Sen Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. David Rouzer suggested they might seek national legislation after the roundtable.
"Today's nuisance lawsuits that are destroying livelihoods and communities in North Carolina are the tip of the iceberg for what is to come absent a well-informed public and good public policy," Rouzer said in a prepared statement. "This is a very slippery slope that threatens the very existence of every form of agriculture nationwide."
Industry group the North Carolina Pork Council decried the jury's decision in a statement warning that it could lead to more lawsuits across the country.
“This is something that not only affects our animal agriculture, it affects our crop agriculture. If we don’t do something about it now, there is not a farm in the country that won’t be affected,” said North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
Environmental advocates said there's good reason pork producers have been getting hit with penalties.
"Clearly it's time for the state and the industry to take a hard look at their waste management and modernize it so the public is protected," said Cassie Gavin, a lobbyist with the North Carolina Sierra Club.
The Pender County, North Carolina, farms at the center of the lawsuit held thousands of hogs owned by a Smithfield Foods subsidiary. Smithfield was sued because plaintiffs' lawyers said the company used strict contracts to dictate how farmers raised Smithfield's animals.
Lawyers for the neighbors said Smithfield hasn't taken measures that would minimize the nuisances,including truck traffic at night and failing to cover waste pits or otherwise capturing the smell and bacteria resulting from pooling liquefied waste.
The company has done that in Missouri and Colorado, attorneys said.
The predominant method of handling hog waste in North Carolina is collecting it in open-air pits that are emptied by spraying liquid excrement on farm fields. The method was banned at new livestock operations in 1997, when industrial-scale hog operations began to be planned near the Pinehurst golf resort two years before it would host the U.S. Open tournament.
Smithfield has continued using the low-cost method because it helps the company produce pork for less than in China, lawyers for the neighbors said. Smithfield is owned by Hong Kong-headquartered WH Group.