More than two dozen nuisance cases have been filed by residents in North Carolina against Murphy-Brown, the live growout subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. So far, the juries have returned three cases to the tune of $50 million, $25 million and $473.5 million. Twenty-three more cases are scheduled, drawing international attention to the southwest portion of the state.
In addition to the immediate impact of the cases and what they might mean for North Carolina hog producers, it raises understandable concerns over whether similar cases could be filed in other states. Here’s a brief breakdown of the major issues in the cases:
What are the cases about? Plaintiffs’ attorneys have recruited more than 500 plaintiffs to file lawsuits against Murphy-Brown. The lawsuits allege Murphy-Brown’s pigs are raised on operations that negatively impact the plaintiffs’ enjoyment and use of their property due to odors and flies from the barns, lagoons and manure application. The plaintiffs also allege the operations are negligent because they use open-air lagoons and apply manure through spraying, both of which are common agricultural practices in the Southeast.
The judge has divided the plaintiffs into 26 trial groups and set a goal of trying one case per month. The next trial is slated for November.
What about the Right to Farm Act? Each state has a different Right to Farm law, and courts interpret them differently, but these odor nuisance cases are exactly what Right to Farm laws were intended to prevent. The thinking behind Right to Farm laws is dust and odors are a fact of life on agricultural operations and neighbors who move into agricultural areas should not be able to sue them over the sounds, smells and traffic that typically accompany farming.
In these cases, the judge held North Carolina’s Right to Farm Act did not bar the plaintiff’s lawsuits. The judge’s decision is especially perplexing because North Carolina’s act is particularly strong and intended to protect operations that make significant changes, such as moving from crops to livestock or adding confinement houses.
What about the farmers? The operations targeted in the lawsuit are operated by family farms under contract with Murphy-Brown. However, the plaintiffs have not named any of the farmers in their cases. This strategy allows the plaintiffs’ attorneys to pit the jury solely against a large corporation. This does not mean farmers will not be affected, though. Smithfield is likely to end their contracts on operations where the jury finds a nuisance exists—a devastating result for these family operations that have so much of their lives, assets and futures tied into hog farming.
Could this happen in my state? It depends. Even though North Carolina’s punitive damage law will significantly reduce the amount of damages owed, these eye-popping verdicts are likely to motivate plaintiffs’ attorneys to try similar cases in other states. However, the judge in these cases has made several decisions that could be overturned on appeal and might result in the plaintiffs walking away with nothing.
Nuisance cases are decided under state law, which means outcomes would likely vary based on the state where the case is tried.
After an initial refusal, the judge overseeing the cases recently paused the trial schedule to allow the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to examine matters raised by Murphy-Brown in an appeal. This could result in tossing out the plaintiffs cases or a retrial. In the meantime, I expect state legislatures will be taking a close look at updating their Right to Farm laws.