Fourth Circuit hears arguments in hog industry suit

Clinton Hog Farm
Hogs in one of farmer Josh Coombs' finishing houses on his farm in Clinton, NC. Image: Robert Clark, North State Journal

RALEIGH — The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond heard arguments Friday in a case that could be a bellwether for North Carolina’s pork industry.

Dozens of lawsuits by individuals against hog farming operations have been filed under a legal theory that while hog farms are not alleged to have violated laws and regulations of the industry, they still constitute a legal nuisance to those who live near them and therefore can be liable for damages.

The first cases resulted in jury awards exceeding $500 million. A North Carolina law that limits punitive damage awards reduced the judgments to around $100 million.

The verdicts rocked the industry in the country’s No. 2 pork-producing state.

Last week a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit, heard oral arguments in Smithfield’s appeal of the first case, McKiver et al. v Murphy-Brown. The company says the lawsuits — and the high cost judgments — threaten livestock agriculture and North Carolina’s rural economy,

“This suit is the tip of a spear aimed at North Carolina’s agricultural economy,” the company’s appeal brief says. “… A great deal depends on the outcome of these coordinated lawsuits, including the livelihoods of many in eastern North Carolina’s predominantly agricultural communities.”

In the court filings, Smithfield’s legal team argued that errors were made at trial that improperly influenced the outcome of the case and spilled over into four subsequent trials.

“After years of litigation, we are pleased to have the opportunity to bring our arguments before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. We are hopeful that the judges will remedy the errors of the trial court and protect the rights of an independent family farm that has been operating for 25 years without any regulatory violation and without neighbor complaints,” said Keira Lombardo of Smithfield Foods.

Friday’s case involved residents of Bladen County who owned property near a hog farm. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the farm generated noxious odors that they claimed constituted a public nuisance.

The three-judge panel is made up of Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, nominated to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, Judge G. Steven, a George W. Bush nominee, and Judge Stephanie Thacker, appointed by President Barack Obama.

The appeals court’s decision will likely shape the other cases against Murphy-Brown which are still pending appeals. More than 500 individuals are involved in lawsuits filed against the Smithfield subsidiary.

The court could take weeks or months to announce a decision in the case.