Legislature overrides Cooper veto on hog farm odor lawsuits

Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of a bill that limits awards in lawsuits over the odors from hog and chicken farms, marking the fourth Cooper veto that lawmakers have rejected.

With no debate, the Senate completed the override with a 30-18 vote on May 11. The day before, the House also agreed the bill should become law despite Cooper's objections.

The law applies to future "nuisance" actions filed against farming and forestry operations, but not to pending lawsuits, some of which prompted the legislation.

The new law restricts compensatory damages against farming and forestry operations to the reduction in value of lost property or the rental value of affected properties, capped at the fair market or rental value. The law doesn't alter the current rules on punitive damages a jury could assess.

Bill supporters, which included the pork industry with its industrial-scale farms in eastern North Carolina, said the limits would rein in lawsuits in which attorneys sought awards well above the value of the property at issue.

"Farmers across our state are grateful that the Senate has acted to override the Gov. Cooper veto to provide them more certainty and protection from predatory lawyers," North Carolina Pork Council CEO Andy Curliss said in a release, adding the override votes "sent a clear message that lawmakers support agriculture and its unique role in providing food to families."

In his veto message last week, Cooper said that while the industries targeted in the law should be encouraged to thrive, he was worried the special protections opened the door to weakening civil actions in other nuisance matters and harm homeowners and the environment.

Cooper repeated those concerns in a statement Thursday night, saying he was disappointed by the legislature's actions "that weaken nuisance laws and fail to protect property rights."

The veto marks the fourth by Cooper since taking Jan. 1. The Republican-controlled General Assembly also overrode the previous three - two on judicial matters and a third on combining state elections and ethics panels.

The law was a response to federal lawsuits filed by about 500 rural residents against Murphy-Brown LLC, a hog production division of Virginia's Smithfield Foods. The companies are U.S. subsidiaries of a Chinese company that is the world's largest pork producer.

The original measure could have applied to these matters, but an amendment made the law apply only to future litigation. Still, critics of the measure say the effort shows evidence of favoritism to a politically well-connected industry.

The Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance estimate about 60,000 North Carolina homes are within a half-mile of livestock operations, the range within which families are mostly likely to pursue lawsuits to stop an alleged nuisance.

Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook blasted Thursday's vote in a release, calling it essentially a license for Smithfield Foods to pollute properties.