The case, brought by 10 neighbors of the 15,000-head production facility, Kinlaw Farm, is the first of dozens of nuisance lawsuits filed by more than 500 neighbors, based on allegations that the farms negatively impact the quality of life of residents in North Carolina due to offensive odors, tractor trailer traffic and other factors. While the jury award would pay out $75,000 in compensatory damages to each of the 10 plaintiffs and an additional $5 million in punitive damages, state law in North Carolina limits punitive damage awards to three times the amount of compensatory damages, or approximately $225,000 per plaintiff.
Smithfield will appeal the verdict and is confident it will prevail, according to a statement.
“We are extremely disappointed by the verdict,” said Keira Lombardo, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Smithfield.
She added that the jury’s outcome would have likely been different if they had been allowed to visit the hog farm as well as the plaintiffs’ properties and if they had heard the results of expert odor monitoring tests. She said the verdict implies that regulatory compliance by production farmers is not enough to protect them from litigation.
“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,” she said.
“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,” Lombardo said. “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.”
In late 2017, representatives for Murphy-Brown argued that North Carolina’s “Right to Farm” law shielded the company from litigation. They contended that the law protects agricultural concerns in operation for more than a year if the operation was not a nuisance at the time the operation began. The law exempts nuisances resulting from negligence or improper operations. However, US District Court Judge Earl Britt ruled in favor of residents.
In his ruling, Britt said “…plaintiffs’ use of their properties as residences did not extend into an agricultural area. Their land use had been in existence well before the operations of the subject farms began. The fact that some plaintiffs may have used their land for agricultural purposes in addition to a residence or that other agricultural uses have pre-existed in the locality does not alter the court’s analysis. At bottom, plaintiffs’ nuisance claims have nothing to do with changed conditions in the area, and therefore, as a matter of law, the right-to-farm law does not bar those claims.”