RALEIGH, N.C. (Legal Newsline) – Representatives of agriculture in North Carolina accuse lawyers and their plaintiffs of attempting to put farmers out of business in the wake of a lawsuit targeting a hog ranch.
“I would liken this ongoing litigation of hog production to a blight that could cripple farm production in this state and others across the country,” Steve Troxler, North Carolina agricultural commissioner, told Legal Newsline. “One big problem is the use of the term ‘nuisance.’ I’d say just about anything could be a nuisance to someone at any point in time.”
Troxler said legal abuse of the word nuisance is a mounting concern.
“Where does it stop?” he asked.
On Aug. 3, a federal jury awarded six North Carolina residents $470 million in damages against pork-raiser Murphy-Brown LLC based in Warsaw, North Carolina. The company, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., is the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer. The verdict included $75 million each in punitive damages for the six plaintiffs plus $3 million to $5 million in compensatory damages for loss of enjoyment in their properties.
However, a recently enacted state law capping punitive damages will lower that amount to a total $94 million according to an Aug. 3 report by the News & Observer.
The plaintiffs filed suit for stench odor, truck noise and flies generated near their homes on Kinlaw Farm in Bladen County.
The lawsuit which originated in 2014, claimed the farm’s open-pit lagoons attracted insects, pests and buzzards, that dead animals were being trucked away past resident properties and in addition to odor concerns, residents' sleep was disturbed by truck lights and noise.
According to a report in New Food Economy, the North Carolina Legislature in June passed Senate Bill 711 to limit the ability of landowners to seek court compensation when they felt they had suffered loss of property value due to neighboring farming activity. Because of the new legislation, compensation to the plaintiffs could be lowered because it does not entitle plaintiffs to additional money for reduction in quality of life.
The verdict reached on Friday at the Eastern District of North Carolina is the first of 26 such nuisance cases still pending against the company.
Michael Kaeske, owner of a law firm in Austin, Texas, along with Lisa Blue Baron of Dallas, and others, represented the plaintiffs in their $50 million judgment. Plaintiffs argued that the pork operation run by Murphy-Brown prevented resident landowners near the site from enjoying their properties.
But in late June, as publicity over the litigation mounted, U.S. District Senior Judge W. Earl Britt issued a gag order forbidding plaintiffs, defendants and their attorneys from discussing the case with media.
Troxler said the problem of targeting farmers with nuisance lawsuits arose in 2013 with a couple of out-of-state lawyers pursuing such a case even though a federal judge threw it out calling it “unethical.”
“I would call agricultural production anything but a nuisance,” Troxler said. “It’s important to remember today these lawsuits are aimed at hog farms, but tomorrow it could be a cattle operation, a peanut farm or a catfish farm. What people seem to forget is that these farms and farmers who are part of these lawsuits are the same ones producing the food we enjoy three times a day.
"We can no longer sit back and let others attack our industry,” he added.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, agreed the issue of nuisance lawsuits against farmers has become a chronic problem.
“Litigation is pitting neighbor against neighbor, community against community,” Duvall told Legal Newsline. “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 feed the world. They will not be a nuisance. They deserve a fair shot, to grow and succeed.”
U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-North Carolina) said nuisance lawsuits are destroying jobs and communities in the state and are just the tip of the iceberg to the problem.
“A nuisance is very much in the eye of the beholder,” Rouzer told Legal Newsline. “Every single farm family that is in compliance with applicable regulations---no matter what they are growing, should have a safe harbor from legal action being brought against them. This is a very slippery slope that threatens the very existence of every form of agriculture nationwide.”