WASHINGTON – Stakeholders in the pork industry expressed disappointment after a second federal jury verdict in a hog odor nuisance case went against Smithfield Foods Inc. On June 29, a jury awarded plaintiffs Elvis and Vonnie Williams $65,000 each in compensatory damages and $12.5 million in punitive damages each for nuisances such as waste lagoon odors, flies and noise from truck traffic.
The Williamses live near a 4,700-head hog farm owned by Joey Carter in Duplin County, North Carolina. Out of the dozens of nuisance lawsuits Smithfield and its subsidiary Murphy-Brown LLC face, the case was considered more favorable to the company’s case because the Williamses moved into their home after Carter established his hog farm and had not complained before filing their lawsuit, according to court documents.
Dozens of nuisance lawsuits have targeted Smithfield and Murphy-Brown, but organizations such as the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said the verdicts will have negative consequences for individual family hog farms.
“For the second time in as many months, a North Carolina verdict has come back in favor of plaintiffs after a jury was prevented from visiting the farm subjected to baseless claims,” NPPC President Jim Heimerl said in a statement. “We are deeply troubled by this decision against a farm that has operated responsibly and in compliance with state laws since 1985 and that maintains the highest standards of environmental and community stewardship.
“American hog farmers already face serious headwinds, including export market uncertainty caused by ongoing trade disputes. We can’t allow trial-lawyer abuse of our legal system to continue as it threatens the livelihood of livestock farming families, undermines the rural economy and unnecessarily increases food prices for consumers.”
In April, a federal jury awarded plaintiffs living near a North Carolina contract farm where hogs are being raised for Smithfield received $750,000 in compensation in addition to more than $50 million in punitive damages. The judge in the case reduced the punitive damages to $250,000 per plaintiff to align with the state’s caps on punitive damages. The award to the Williamses also is likely to be reduced.
The North Carolina Pork Council said the verdicts could have “…unforeseen economic consequences…” for hog farmers, the state’s pork industry and North Carolina agriculture. The organization called for an appeal of the jury verdict.
“This verdict signals that no farmer in North Carolina is safe from financially ruinous lawsuits even if they comply fully with all laws and regulations, as Joey Carter did; even if they use best management practices, as Joey Carter did; and even if they had never received any complaints from their neighbors, as was the case with the Carter farm,” the council said in a statement.
“We expect this verdict will force Smithfield Foods to reevaluate its operations in the state. We encourage state, county, local and agricultural leaders to show strong support for a company that has and continues to invest millions in modern technology and research in North Carolina and employs 10,000 people in rural counties.”
In response to the first verdict against Murphy-Brown, North Carolina lawmakers added language to the North Carolina Farm Act of 2018 that limits when individuals can file nuisance complaints against neighboring agricultural businesses. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill saying the legislation infringed on property rights. However, the General Assembly voted to override the veto. The new language in the bill won’t affect lawsuits that already have been filed.