IndyWeek: BREAKING: Plaintiffs Awarded $50 Million in Landmark Smithfield Hog Nuisance Case

by Erica Hellerstein | April 26, 2018

In a landmark decision, the jury ruling on the first of twenty-six nuisance cases against pork-producer Murphy-Brown LLC awarded the plaintiffs damages of more than $50 million.

The case, which went to the jury yesterday afternoon, was the first in a series of federal lawsuits filed by neighbors of hog farms against Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of the Chinese-owned global food giant Smithfield Foods. The plaintiffs argue that the company’s waste-management practices, which consist of storing excess hog waste in open-air cesspools behind hog pens and then liquefying and spraying the remains onto nearby fields, has made their lives miserable. Among other things, they say that the odors and mist from the spray drift onto their property; that the hogs attract swarms of flies, buzzards, and gnats; that boxes filled with rotting dead hogs produce an especially pungent stink; and that the stench has limited their ability to go outside.

The trial involved ten plaintiffs who live near Kinlaw Farm, a large-scale hog operation in Bladen County that contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise about 15,000 hogs.

In an email, Michelle Nowlin, the supervising attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, called the verdict “a significant victory for the community members who live next to these factory feedlots. They have suffered indescribable insults, not just from the immediate impacts of the feedlots themselves, but also from decades of government failure to come to their aid. Litigation was their last chance for justice, and this verdict and award will help them move forward.

“This verdict proves, once and for all, that ‘cheap meat’ is a myth. Someone pays the price of production, and for far too long, that burden has been on the rural communities that are home to North Carolina’s factory farms. This verdict forces the industry to internalize and reckon with those costs. I’m hopeful this decisive victory will be a game-changer in North Carolina and force the industry to modernize its waste-treatment, to the benefit of rural communities, the environment, and the farmers themselves.”

The N.C. Pork Council could not immediately be reached for comment. In a statement attributed to senior vice president Keira Lombardo, Smithfield Foods promised to appeal, writing:

We are extremely disappointed by the verdict. We will appeal to the Fourth Circuit, and we are confident we will prevail. We believe the outcome would have been different if the court had allowed the jury to (1) visit the plaintiffs’ properties and the Kinlaw farm and (2) hear additional vital evidence, especially the results of our expert’s odor-monitoring tests.

These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. 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.

From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine. Plaintiffs’ original lawyers promised potential plaintiffs a big payday. Those lawyers were condemned by a North Carolina state court for unethical practices. Plaintiffs’ counsel at trial relied heavily on anti-agriculture, anti-corporate rhetoric rather than the real facts in the case. These practices are abuses of our legal system, and we will continue to fight them.

Read the INDY’s investigative series on Big Pork in North Carolina here.

Here is the jury”s verdict, for $50.75 million, equally divided among the ten plaintiffs. The verdict orders that each plaintiff receive $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. In a statement citing Smithfield’s attorney, spokeswoman Joyce Fitzpatrick argues that North Carolina law restricts punitive damages to no more than $250,000: “If a trier of fact returns a verdict for punitive damages in excess of the maximum amount … the trial court shall reduce the award and enter judgment for punitive damages in the maximum amount.”

View the PDF here.