Smithfield Foods hit with $473.5M nuisance verdict
North Carolina juries have sided with neighbors in three lawsuits complaining about noise and odor near hog farms connected with Smithfield Foods. In the most recent case, according to Meatingplace, Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown was ordered to pay $473.5 million to six nearby residents of three of its industrial-scale hog farms.
Two previous cases also saw Smithfield on the losing end of jury decisions. A North Carolina jury found for the plaintiffs in late June and awarded them $25 million in damages. In an April decision, a jury awarded more than $50 million to plaintiffs who filed a public nuisance suit complaining about intense odors, noise and other issues. The awards may be cut because North Carolina law limits punitive damages, although that law is being challenged as unconstitutional.
Smithfield spokeswoman Keira Lombardo told Meatingplace the company will appeal the April decision. "These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms," she said in a statement. "These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations. The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina’s entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians."
People living near hog production facilities are taking their complaints to a legal venue more often these days, although they don't always win. A few recent cases in Iowa and Indiana have favored the farmers. Iowa, the nation's top pork producer, has partially shielded producers from nuisance lawsuits — unless plaintiffs can prove they have suffered significant hardship and lived on their property long before the animal operation began.
In June, lawmakers in North Carolina overrode vetoed legislation to protect pork producers from nuisance lawsuits. Under the new law, neighbors must file a complaint within a year of an operation's start, and punitive damages may only be granted if a facility had a criminal charge or code violations.
Chances are such state-level restrictions will limit nuisance cases, although pork producers want to see a federal law adopted to put a stop to them. Meatingplace reported that two members of North Carolina's congressional delegation — U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, and U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-NC — met earlier this month with federal and state agriculture officials about how the lawsuits are impacting hog farmers, and the possibility of such legislation came up.
Some of Smithfield's problems in North Carolina stem from its practice of collecting liquid excrement from hog operations in open-air pits and then spraying it on agricultural land. According to The Associated Press, that method of waste disposal was banned for new livestock operations in 1997, but Smithfield continues to do it because it's cheaper than other methods and helps keep pork production costs lower than in China.
Through changing their practices, hog farmers can limit legal complaints stemming from objectionable odors, noise, waste and other practices, according to attorneys who have defended them. Some methods include siting facilities considering prevailing winds and topography, planting tree buffers, installing adequate ventilation, removing dead animals in a timely manner, maintaining cleanliness and communicating with nearby residents about their concerns.
Even if mitigation measures are observed, neighbors may object to agricultural operations and fear they will be subjected to problems that have cropped up elsewhere. That was the case in Tonganoxie, Kansas, last fall when Tyson Foods announced it would build a $300-million poultry processing facility just south of town. Local opposition resulted in a large anti-Tyson rally. The local county commission voted to rescind a letter of intent backing a $500-million revenue bond for the project and Tyson relocated the plant to an industrial park in Humboldt, Tennessee. The company broke ground there in May but reportedly without the required stormwater discharge permits. Residents near the new plant have also expressed concern about potential pollution and odors from the poultry facilities.