Appeal Begins Friday in North Carolina Nuisance Trials

03:15PM Jan 29, 2020
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It’s a big week for the North Carolina pork industry. On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., will listen to the first case against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, where jurors awarded 10 neighbors of a 15,000-head swine operation a total of $750,000 in compensation and $50 million in damages due to annoyances that they say interfered with enjoyment of their residences. 

Over the past 18 months, a total of five nuisance trials have taken place in the second largest pig farming state in the country, resulting in five negative and wide-ranging verdicts, from hundreds of dollars to millions of dollars in jury awards for the plaintiffs.

“It’s been very trying,” says North Carolina Pork Council CEO Andy Curliss. 

According to the NC Pork Council, the appeals court filings — and accompanying briefs filed by the NC Pork Council, NC Farm Bureau, and other agricultural groups — outline how the plaintiffs received unfair jury decisions by claiming that hog farms near their rural North Carolina homes are a nuisance. 

“These errors took a costly toll. Deprived of the opportunity to resolve factual disputes, improperly exposed to prejudicial evidence, misled by one-sided expert testimony, and misinformed about the law, the jury awarded ten plaintiffs more than $50 million — all for the alleged annoyance and discomfort of living near a farm that opened nearly 25 years ago,” the court filing says.   

The decisions that will be made by the Fourth Circuit could have long-reaching effects on pig farming, Curliss says.

For example, Joey Carter, a well-respected North Carolina hog farmer and leader, had hoped to leave his hog operation in Duplin County, N.C., to his sons, but because his farm was in two of the Smithfield lawsuits, he no longer has pigs because of the ongoing litigation. 

Carter was the defendant in trial number two and trial number five. He has filed papers in the court about this first trial and will be in Richmond watching intently, Curliss says.

“The first trial is the one that's being appealed, but the implications of what's decided by the appeals court about that will flow through the entire cases,” Curliss says. “It will certainly be something that all the farmers in North Carolina will be watching very closely – how the Fourth Circuit listens to the case, discusses the case and then down the road, how it decides.”

North Carolina does not have any nuisance trials going on now as they await the appeals court to take a look at what happened in those cases. Curliss says the Fourth Circuit will make decisions about whether the trials were fair, whether the judge acted appropriately and whether the law was applied appropriately. 

Audio of the oral arguments will be posted here.

Watch our interview with NC Pork’s CEO Andy Curliss above.

More from Farm Journal's PORK:
Pig Farmer Joey Carter was Blindsided - It Could Happen to You
BREAKING: Jury Adds $50M Damages to Smithfield Nuisance Case
A Third Smithfield Lawsuit Verdict Creates Alarm Among Producers