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North Carolina pork trials delayed during appeals

Gag order lifted as nuisance trial delayed until mid-November while the appeals process proceeds, and parties also pursue alternative resolution options.

The ongoing lawsuits against Smithfield Foods’ subsidiary Murphy-Brown and its hog farmers in North Carolina is on hold after three losses against the country’s largest hog producer. In addition, the judge has lifted a June gag order for parties involved in the lawsuit. 

U.S. district Judge Earl Britt signed a court order delaying a fourth nuisance suit against hog farms until November. In a court document dated Aug. 31, Britt also said he was vacating his June 27 order limiting the discussion of the trial.  

North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) chief executive officer Andy Curliss said the next trial will be Nov 13, delayed from the scheduled start of Sept 4. “Appeals of the first three trials will move forward now -- which is much earlier than scheduled,” Curliss told Feedstuffs.

A federal jury decided in August that the world’s largest pork producer should pay $473.5 million to neighbors of three contract farms for the company in the latest ruling. The jury awarded $23.5 million in compensatory damages and $450 million in punitive damages, which will be reduced to a total of $94 million under limits in state law. Previous cases also resulted in nearly $75 million in damages; however, those too are expected to be lowered.

Discussions of a possible dispute settlement is also in the mix. “The parties have also agreed to pursue potential options for alternative resolution of future trials,” the lawyers said in a joint motion for the delay. 

Curliss said the delay in the court proceedings should allow for the two parties to discuss and see if there's a resolution. "I think everyone would agree it's better to be talking than to not. It's hard to speculate on particular outcomes, but we view it as a positive development and not in the courtrooms."

Curliss also welcomed the gag order lifting. He said NCPC, as well as the National Pork Producers Council, American Farm Bureau Federation and North Carolina Farm Bureau, took steps through the court process to voice their displeasure with the gag order in preventing farmers from talking about the case. "We're grateful the judge himself lifted the gag which was improperly brought," he said. 

More than 500 residents have filed 25 lawsuits against Smithfield Foods.

NCPC said that leaders from across North Carolina are continuing to show support for agriculture and the 2018 Farm Act amid ongoing lawsuits, as their schedules have permitted.

The county commissioners in Onslow County and Polk County are the latest to show support for farmers at a pivotal moment as “lawyers attack agriculture,” NCPC said.

The resolutions support agriculture and the 2018 Farm Act, which aims to provide certainty and clarity for farmers in North Carolina.

The Onslow resolution states that “frivolous nuisance lawsuits are threatening the very existence of farming in North Carolina.”

In Polk County, which is along the South Carolina border south of Asheville, N.C., commissioners adopted a resolution that says they “fear that if this verdict is not overturned, it will set a precedent with far-reaching ramifications devastating to North Carolina’s agricultural economy.” Polk County commissioners said they “hereby support the swine farmers of eastern North Carolina and believe that the agriculture industry is vital to the North Carolina economy and should be protected.”

To date, nine counties in the state have adopted resolutions voicing support for farmers, as have eight municipalities.

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