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Jury rules against Smithfield subsidiary hog farms

Plaintiffs win $50 million verdict in landmark North Carolina nuisance lawsuit.

A jury awarded damages of more than $50 million to homeowners who lived near a hog farm of North Carolina-based Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. The case was the first in a series of 26 cases filed involving nuisance challenges against hog farms.

The trial involved 10 plaintiffs who live near Kinlaw Farm, which contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise about 15,000 hogs in Bladen County, N.C. The neighbors argued that the odors and mist from the spray drift onto their property has limited their quality of life and ability to go outside.

In the trial, the plaintiffs from Bladen County argued that a large-scale hog operation’s inadequate waste-management practices had a detrimental effect on their property values and health and that the corporate owners knew of the problems that the open-air sewage pits used to store hog waste had caused on the surrounding area.

The verdict orders that each plaintiff receive $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. North Carolina law requires that punitive damages must be limited to three times the amount of compensatory damages.

Mark Anderson, McGuire Woods attorney representing Smithfield Foods, stated that North Carolina statute provides that punitive damages be 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,”  he explained.

Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at Duke University, said the landmark verdict “proves, once and for all, that ‘cheap meat’ is a myth. Someone pays the price of production, and for far too long, that burden has been on the rural communities that are home to North Carolina’s factory farms.”

Smithfield Foods said it was disappointed in the verdict and would appeal to the fourth circuit. “We are confident we will prevail,” said Keira Lombardo, Smithfield Foods senior vice president of corporate affairs.

Lombardo argued that the company believed the outcome of the court proceedings would have been different if the court had allowed the jury to visit the plaintiffs’ properties and Kinlaw Farm and hear additional vital evidence, especially the results of their expert’s odor monitoring tests.

“From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine. 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,” Lombardo said.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said these lawsuits and this verdict represent an “unwarranted attack on livestock agriculture.” NPPC added, “The U.S. pork industry has a strong and long-standing track record of environmental stewardship and plays a critical role in strengthening the rural economy in America. The misuse of our legal system to attack a farm sector that supports more than 500,000 U.S. jobs must come to an end.”

Lombardo noted, “These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. 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.”

TAGS: Policy
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