RALEIGH, N.C. — A new federal judge will hear the latest nuisance lawsuit against Smithfield Foods’ hog production division.
US District Judge David Faber, from the Southern District of West Virginia, will replace US District Judge Earl Britt from the Eastern District of North Carolina.
According to WRAL-TV in Raleigh North Carolina, Britt, 85, complained of back issues during the latest trial accusing Smithfield Foods of nuisance. Faber has been assigned to the fourth trial brought against the pork company, according to court documents.
Faber was assigned to be on the bench for the trial starting Sept. 4, in which neighbors are suing Smithfield over the smells, flies and pests caused by a 7,100-hog farm the company owns in Sampson County.
Before either party was aware of the change, the North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) filed a friend-of-the court brief to reverse a gag order imposed in June by Britt on any potential witnesses, parties and lawyers.
The pork organizations argued that there is no compelling need for the gag order, that the order is too broad and vague, and that it won’t be effective.
“The greatest risk of [jury] prejudice,” NPPC and NCPC said. “isn’t the existence of publicity; it is the existence of one-sided publicity that has resulted from the gag order.”
In the latest case, six plaintiffs suing Smithfield Foods subsidiary Murphy-Brown were awarded $473.5 million in damages by a jury. Due to North Carolina’s cap on punitive damages, the award will likely be reduced to about $94 million.
On April 26, a jury awarded $750,000 in compensation in addition to more than $50 million in punitive damages to 10 plaintiffs in a case. A judge’s decision reduced that award to $2,500,000 in punitive damages for a total award of $3,250,000.
In the second lawsuit on June 29, a jury awarded plaintiffs Elvis and Vonnie Williams $65,000 each in compensatory damages and $25 million total in a nuisance lawsuit, claiming they were subject to waste lagoon odors, flies and noise from truck traffic.
According to the Associated Press, NCPC CEO Andy Curliss criticized Britt for many choices including refusing requests by Smithfield lawyers to have jurors tour the hog operations being sued. Lawyers for the suing neighbors stated that smell intensity can vary widely hour by hour, and farm operators would spruce up ahead of a visit, giving jurors a misrepresentation of the day-to-day operation.
North Carolina lawmakers voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill on July 9 that limits nuisance lawsuits against agricultural businesses. The North Carolina Farm Act of 2018 became law after the state Senate voted 37-9 on June 26 and state representatives voted 74-45 on June 27 to override the veto.