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A big stink: Hog farm hit for $50.75M nuisance verdict

A massive federal jury verdict is a poor sign for North Carolina’s porcine.

In a potentially groundbreaking decision, a jury in the state’s Eastern District has awarded $50.75 million in damages to 10 residents living near an industrial hog farm in Bladen County to compensate them for the nasty odors produced by the farm’s porkers.

The local residents had filed a private nuisance lawsuit against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, alleging that the farm’s stench interfered with their enjoyment of their property. On April 26, the jury awarded the plaintiffs $750,000 in actual damages, and $50 million in punitive damages.

The verdict is the first ever of its kind against North Carolina’s hog farming industry, and could lay down a potentially significant marker for other similar lawsuits that are currently pending against pork producers in the state.

Previous attempts to sue hog farmers fizzled out in the 1980s after North Carolina passed a “right to farm” law that generally prevents nuisance lawsuits against agricultural operations. But the law permits such lawsuits when the nuisance results from the negligent or improper operation of a farm. The plaintiffs had alleged that Murphy-Brown had failed to update its operations to employ modern best practices to minimize its effect on the surrounding community and that it could have taken reasonable steps to reduce the stink.

Last year, in response to the lawsuits, the state’s General Assembly overrode a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper to amend the right-to-farm law to cap damage awards in nuisance lawsuits at the market value of the property affected. An effort to make the change retroactive foundered after concerns were raised about whether such a change would be constitutional.

The dispute got ugly at times. The suits were filed in August 2014, shortly after Smithfield was purchased by WH Group, a Chinese corporation. The original complaints made numerous references to the Chinese government, its ruling Communist Party, and its military, the People’s Liberation Army. Judge Earl Britt ordered the plaintiffs to edit out those references, finding that they were “highly prejudicial to defendant and have little to no bearing on plaintiffs’ underlying claims.”

In April, Britt denied a request by the defendants to have jurors visit the farm in question to smell the odors for themselves, saying that a quick visit to the farm wouldn’t give jurors a true feel for the conditions. (The plaintiffs contended that the company had just undertaken an unprecedented effort to remove millions of gallons of waste from the farm, possibly in direct response to the lawsuit.)

Mona Lisa Wallace and John Hughes of Wallace and Graham in Salisbury represented the plaintiffs, along with attorneys from two law firms based in Texas.

“We are pleased with the jury’s verdict,” Wallace said in a written statement emailed to Lawyers Weekly. “These cases are about North Carolina family property rights and a clean environment.”

Attorneys at McGuireWoods represented Murphy-Brown, with Mark Anderson of Raleigh serving as lead in-state counsel. Anderson said that the company was disappointed by the verdict and believes that there are some very significant issues which will be addressed on appeal.

“It is also important to understand that the McKiver case was chosen by the plaintiffs as their best case,” Anderson said. “It certainly was unique. We have chosen the next case and I think you will see that Smithfield will prevail. There are 10 additional cases already set. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The future of agriculture in North Carolina hangs in the balance.”

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

VERDICT REPORT – PRIVATE NUISANCE

Amount: $50.75 million

Injuries alleged: Interference with enjoyment of property

Case name: McKiver et. al. v. Murphy-Brown, LLC

Court: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina

Case number: 7:14-cv-00180-BR

Judge: Earl Britt

Date of verdict: April 26

Special damages: $50 million in punitive damages

Attorneys for plaintiff: Mona Lisa Wallace and John Hughes of Wallace and Graham in Salisbury; Eric Manchin, Michael Kaeske and Lynn Bradshaw of Kaeske Law Firm in Austin, Texas; and Lisa Blue Baron of Baron and Blue in Dallas, Texas

Attorneys for defendant: Mark Anderson and Matt Mathews of McGuireWoods in Raleigh and Richmond, respectively (lead attorneys)

 

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