RALEIGH — The gallery of the N.C. Senate erupted in applause Monday night as senators cast a 33-13 vote in favor of the Farm Act of 2018. The measure provides some protection to N.C. farmers from “nuisance” lawsuits. The bill came in response to nearly 30 class-action lawsuits filed by personal injury attorneys on behalf of neighbors of hog farms. Supporters of the group N.C. Farm Families were there late to see the votes cast. All Democrats present voted against it.
Last month a judge ruled against Murphy-Brown LLC, the hog-farming division of Smithfield Foods, awarding $50 million to 10 neighbors of a hog farm in Bladen County. The neighbors complained of strong smells and flies emanating from the hog farm, saying it impacted their ability to use their property. The owner of that farm had a contract with Smithfield Foods and is no longer in business.
“North Carolina’s family farmers are under attack by greedy out-of-state trial lawyers, and recent rulings have stripped away the protections the right to farm law sought to guarantee,” said bill sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson).
Senate Bill 711 was before the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday and is expected to be approved. Among other things, it sets a deadline for any lawsuits against an operation of one year from the operation’s start and requires that punitive damages can only be awarded if the farm had a criminal charge or code violation.
The N.C. Chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental lobbying group, said the measure unfairly restricted homeowners from suing.
“North Carolinians all deserve a fair chance to protect their health and their homes from environmental hazards no matter the source,” the group said.
Sens. Bill Cook (R-Beaufort) and Norm Sanderson (R-Pamlico) are also sponsors of the bill.
“It’s good for hog farms, but it’s really good for all farmers — poultry and others,” said Marisa Linton, president of N.C. Farm Families, which organized a campaign in support of the measure.
N.C. Farm Families, formed in response to what they say is repeated legal attacks on the farming industry, said the passage is welcome and those farmers gathered in the Senate gallery celebrated as they look toward the House now.
“Farmers have been meeting in prayer circles,” said Linton. “It depends on the day, but they are optimistic. You have to be, as a farmer. No matter what the weather throws at you, you have to have faith and overcome.”
The group is working to get the word out about the struggles and contributions of N.C. family farms to the state’s economy and the world’s food supply. Linton encourages neighbors of farming operations to reach out to their farming neighbors before reaching out to a lawyer.
“Get the facts, talk to the farmer if there’s a problem,” she said. “Farmers care about the environment, they care about their community and they want to do the right thing and be able to make a living on their land.”
The bill is now before the House Finance Committee. It would not apply to lawsuits already in the court’s pipeline, but only to future cases.