A federal jury has awarded $473.5 million in damages to six North Carolinians, agreeing with them that odors from a Pender County hog farm were bad enough that they interfered with their right to enjoy their property.
Smithfield owns the integrator Murphy-Brown, the named defendant in the case, and plans to appeal the verdict.
The punitive damages are subject to a state cap of three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever figure is higher. But unlike the previous two cases decided this year, where multimillion-dollar awards were cut substantially, in this case the compensatory damages ranged from $3 million to $5 million per plaintiff, so the overall award – even with the cap – could be $94 million.
The verdict came the same day that lawmakers and representatives from farm groups gathered at a roundtable in the state to rail against trial lawyers and call for legislation to protect farming operations from nuisance suits.
“We need to come up with model legislation, we need to figure out what the federal government should do,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said at the event in Raleigh. He said he would request that the Senate Agriculture and Judiciary committees hold hearings.
“We need to send a very clear message to the trial lawyers: We’re bigger than you when we coordinate,” Tillis said, noting the verdict that had just been made public. “Literally, while this meeting has been going on, another blow has been struck."
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Other attendees of what was billed as the National Agriculture Leaders Roundtable in Raleigh included Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, USDA Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service Undersecretary Bill Northey, and North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, among others.
In addition to the three trials concluded in the state in the last three months, 23 more federal lawsuits are lined up to proceed. NPPC President Jim Heimerl, a pork producer from Johnstown, Ohio, said in a statement that if the plaintiffs prevail in the rest of the cases, “they’ll put more than 46,000 people out of work and cost the state – the nation’s second largest pork producer – millions of dollars in economic activity.”
The state legislature passed a bill in June to limit nuisance lawsuits against farms, setting a deadline for bringing such suits at one year from the start of an operation. In addition, punitive damages could only be awarded against a farm that had a criminal charge or code violation. State lawmakers overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the bill.
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