RALEIGH — A North Carolina jury awarded $50 million to 10 neighbors of a hog farm in eastern N.C. who claimed that the smell of the farm and the noise from its trucks amounted to a nuisance in their community. N.C.-based Murphy-Brown Farms and parent company Smithfield Foods say they will appeal the verdict.
“I am very disappointed in the verdict and believe it will harm our hardworking farm families who produce food for the state, nation and world,” said N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
Lawyers for the defendants say it sets a dangerous precedent; the farms were never found to be in violation of their permits, prompting speculation that similar lawsuits can crop up against businesses even if they are operating within the law.
“These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms,” said Keira Lombardo, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Smithfield Foods in a statement. “These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations. The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina’s entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians.”
Neighbors told the jury that the smell from the 1,500-hog farm was so strong it permeated their neighborhood. They argued that the farm’s lagoon system for storing waste, while legal, are an outdated method of containing runoff and contributed to the problem.
“We are pleased with the verdict. These cases are about North Carolina family property rights and a clean environment,” said Salisbury-based personal injury attorney Mona Lisa Wallace, who represented the 10 neighbors in the lawsuit first filed in 2014.
“From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine,” said Lombardo. “Plaintiffs’ original lawyers promised potential plaintiffs a big payday. Those lawyers were condemned by a North Carolina state court for unethical practices. Plaintiffs’ counsel at trial relied heavily on anti-agriculture, anti-corporate rhetoric rather than the real facts in the case. These practices are abuses of our legal system, and we will continue to fight them.”
Lawyers for the defendant say they will appeal the decision, but also say that the judgment is excessive and in violation of state law. Last year, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law capping the amount that neighbors could get from nuisance lawsuits against hog and poultry farms. The lawmakers later changed the law so it would not apply to pending litigation.
“The North Carolina law on punitive damages controls this verdict,” said Mark Anderson of McGuire Woods, the firm representing Smithfield. “The indisputable provisions of North Carolina statute provide that punitive damages are limited to the greater of $250,000, or three times the amount of compensatory damages, which in this case were $75,000 per person. This means that each plaintiff should be awarded $325,000, for a total judgment for all 10 plaintiffs of $3,250,000.”
The case is just one of five that Wallace is litigating against hog farms with the next one due to open May 29.