Judge reduces damages in Murphy-Brown hog odor case

by Erica Shaffer
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RALEIGH, N.C. – The federal judge presiding over the hog odor nuisance lawsuit against Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., reduced the punitive damages awarded to the plaintiffs to $250,000 from $5 million, court documents show.

Senior US District Judge W. Earl Britt granted a motion filed by Murphy-Brown attorneys to impose North Carolina’s statutory cap on punitive damages. Under the state’s law, punitive damages shall not exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.

“This ruling was expected, as North Carolina law is very clear on this point,” Keira Lombardo, senior vice president, Smithfield Foods, said in a statement to MEAT+POULTRY.

On April 26, a jury awarded $750,000 in compensation in addition to more than $50 million in punitive damages to 10 plaintiffs in the case. The judge’s decision reduces the award to $2,500,000 in punitive damages for a total award of $3,250,000.

Michelle Nowlin, Clinical Professor of law and Supervising Attorney at the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, said the judge's ruling doesn't change the significance of the jury's verdict.

“To make an award of punitive damages in any amount, the jury must first determine that the evidence showed that the defendant acted with willful and wanton disregard of the plaintiffs’ rights and interests,” Nowlin explained. “The fact that the jury made this finding, and then decided that $50 million was a reasonable amount that would serve the intent of punitive damages – to punish the defendant and provide an incentive for improved performance in the future – is in itself significant and should concern the company’s shareholders and corporate board. 

“However, the punitive damage cap is unfortunate, as it undermines the justice system and, in my opinion, violates the due process rights of the plaintiffs,” she added. “This is especially the case in NC, where the statute that imposes the damage cap also prohibits the attorneys and judge from informing the jury of the cap’s existence. This means that the jury wasn’t fully advised of the law it was applying.”

The case was brought by 10 neighbors of Kinlaw Farm, a 15,000-head production facility in Dublin, North Carolina. It is the first of dozens of nuisance lawsuits filed by more than 500 neighbors.

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