KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Organizations representing agriculture industry interests filed amicus briefs with the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals urging the court to reverse a $50 million judgment in favor of residents who sued a neighboring pork producer because of the odors caused by his hog farm.
The North American Meat Institute (Meat Institute), along with the National Association of Manufacturers, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Turkey Federation and the National Chicken Council urged the court to overturn the award given to 10 plaintiffs in the case of McKiver v. Murphy Brown LLC.
In its brief, the groups argued that the purpose of punitive damages is to punish unlawful conduct. But the hog producer in lawsuit was operating in compliance with environmental regulations.
“That a court would allow punitive damages to be awarded against a company operating within its permit puts not only agricultural operations at risk, it puts any industry in North Carolina at risk for nuisance liability and punitive damages,” said Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts.
In a separate filing, the American Farm Bureau Federation, North Carolina Farm Bureau, National Pork Producers Council and the North Carolina Pork Council, said the entire US livestock industry is threatened by the proceedings of McKiver v. Murphy Brown LLC.
“Amici are keenly interested in this case because massive damages awards based on normal farming activity that complies with applicable regulations pose an existential threat to the livelihoods of farmers and the food security of our nation,” court documents state. “And the structure of the suit— targeting a processor for activities of a contracted grower who operates the farm and manages its manure — raises questions about the viability of a commonplace and efficient commercial relationship.”
The groups also believed the lawsuit poses a threat to farmers and livestock producers beyond the pork industry and noted that environmental groups have publicly stated that similar legal tactics could be used against poultry producers.
Ultimately, the consumers end up losing.
“Enormous judgments against the producers of our food drive up costs and undermine one of our nation’s greatest strengths — its abundant supply of domestically-grown, affordable, and high-quality food, and the food security that comes with it.”
A jury for the McKiver v. Murphy Brown LLC awarded 10 plaintiffs more than $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages. A second trial produced an award of more than $25 million to two plaintiffs, and a third resulted in an award of more than $473 million to six plaintiffs. More than 20 lawsuits including more than 500 plaintiffs have yet to be heard, according to court documents.
“Even after reductions to comply with North Carolina limits on punitive damages, repeated verdicts of this measure are crippling; no business could withstand an ongoing assault of this kind,” the groups said in their amicus brief.