RALEIGH, N.C. — A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeal for the Fourth District unanimously struck down a gag order from the fourth trial in the North Carolina hog nuisance lawsuit against Smithfield Foods subsidiary Murphy-Brown LLC.
The court said the gag order, which prohibited lawyers or anyone with knowledge of conditions of North Carolina hog operations from sharing information with reporters or on social media, violated the First Amendment. The panel also directed the district court to vacate both the June 27, 2018 and August 31, 2018 orders.
In a strongly worded decision, the court wrote that “the gag order contravened the First Amendment in basic respects.”
The appeals court also added that:
“The gag order has already inflicted serious harm on parties, advocates, and potential witnesses alike. It has muted political engagement on a contested issue of great public and private consequence. It has hamstrung the exercise of First Amendment rights. Even in short doses, these harms are hostile to the First Amendment. Indeed, as petitioner notes, the threat of a gag order will hang over these trials as a sort of ‘Sword of Damocles,’ dangling by the thread of the court’s displeasure…Its chilling effect is evident and unacceptable.”
US District Judge Earl Britt from the Eastern District of North Carolina issued the gag order on June 27 in an earlier nuisance lawsuit involving Smithfield.
However, 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.
A new federal judge, David Faber, was also assigned back in August to the fourth nuisance case.
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.
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.
In the third 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.