RALEIGH, N.C. (Legal Newsline) – Animal Agriculture Alliance president and CEO Kay Johnson Smith worries that there's little farmers can do to resolve issues being litigated in nuisance lawsuits that target them in federal court in North Carolina.
“In all of these suits, the plaintiffs are going after a great deal of money, but there is nothing that can be told to farmers in terms of changing things and protecting themselves in the future,” Johnson Smith told Legal Newsline.
Presently, 22 related cases remain pending in the federal court system with four plaintiff verdicts rendered, the latest of which Pork Magazine reports Judge David Faber did not include punitive damages to any of the eight Sampson County plaintiffs based on lack of evidence. That left the plaintiffs to walk away with awards between $100 and $75,000.
Verdicts for plaintiffs were reached in three other cases decided in federal court in North Carolina in 2018, ranging from $7.5 million to $23.5 million in compensatory damages, and even more in punitive damages that were later reduced due to state law capping non-economic damages.
All of the suits name Murphy-Brown, a division of industry-leading meat packer Smithfield Foods, as a defendant, saying that it owns the animals at the farms and has strict codes in place as to how they are to be reared.
“What we’re seeing right now certainly has created a watch for all of us because the outcome could be precedent-setting,” Johnson Smith added. “Around farms, it’s not unusual that there is dust and it smells, all that is associated with farming as a whole whether we’re talking about today or 100 years ago.”
Murphy Brown, a Delaware-based meat-packing company and hog integrator, has been named as a defendant in all 26 of the suits filed over the last four years and by each of the 500 plaintiffs spread across eastern North Carolina, according to the Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation.
In almost every instance, the plaintiffs are neighbors who allege that their lives have been adversely impacted by living near a farm and the parties obligated for manning the land have not done all they can do to make the situation more bearable.
Topping the list of “nuisance” complaints in the country’s second-highest hog-producing state are smell, noise and swarming insects.
While Johnson Smith says she wishes the two sides could work more closely together to try to eradicate problems, she thinks she knows how and why things have come to this point so quickly.
“The suits in North Carolina were generated by out-of-state attorneys who have a bias against animal agriculture,” she said. “They see these big-pocket companies and things happen. It’s not a coincidence that the suits are not against the farmers but against Smithfield. I think that fact is very telling about the ultimate goal of these filings.”
In the 1980s, right-to-farm laws were instituted in all 50 states with the goal being to protect farmers from suits filed by those who relocated to rural areas after farming operations had already commenced.
In 2018, North Carolina legislators responded to the state's growing litigation by passing the North Carolina Farm Act of 2018, which outlaws nuisance suits from being brought before the court unless the claim is filed within 12 months of the operation’s establishment or a “fundamental” change has occurred at the farm.
The bill also caps the value of damages that can be awarded and limits punitive damages to only instances in which there are previous environmental or criminal violations lodged against the targeted farm over the previous three years.
“The flood of these suits has led to families being left without a livelihood when they are in complete compliance and doing nothing unlawful,” Johnson Smith added. “The suits target Smithfield, but on the ground they damage farmers. It’s very disheartening to see people going after farmers for the wrong reasons.”
North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler warns of consequences that could be felt far beyond the radius of where the suits were filed.
“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,” he previously 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.”