North Carolina nuisance verdict ‘despicable,’ says Perdue

Chuck Abbott

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue joined farm groups on Monday in calling for a $50 million judgment against a North Carolina hog farm to be overturned. “This is despicable,” Perdue said of the judgment reached by a federal jury in a lawsuit that challenged the hog farm as a nuisance that exposed neighbors to health risks and a reduced quality of life.

“It’s horrible if that’s the kind of money that people are awarding,” Perdue told reporters. Although not familiar with the details of the case, he said “I feel certain that kind of award has to be overturned for hog production.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group, and the National Pork Producers Council, which represents mostly large-scale hog farmers, also criticized the verdict as an attack on U.S. livestock production, which increasingly relies on large-scale feedlots. “It is worrisome that a misled jury has set a dangerous precedent that will motivate more greed-driven lawsuits against more farmers. We are hopeful this verdict will be overturned on appeal,” said Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall.

The NPPC decried “a frivolous nuisance lawsuit” and said the pork industry “has a strong and long-standing track record of environmental stewardship and plays a critical role in strengthening the rural economy in America.”

Grassroots activists hailed the verdict as a major victory and a potential turning point against the power of large livestock producers and processors. The lawsuit was the first of 26 nuisance suits filed against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the largest pork company in the country. North Carolina is second to Iowa as a hog producer and third in broiler chickens, behind Georgia and Arkansas.

Ten residents of Bladen County argued in the federal court trial that Murphy-Brown failed to manage adequately the number of hogs on a nearby farm or the millions of gallons of waste they produced. Open-air manure “lagoons” reeked and overwhelming odors were released when manure was sprayed onto fields, said the plaintiffs. The federal jury found the hog farm “substantially and unreasonably” interfered with the rights of neighbors to enjoyment of their property. For more background on the case, read FERN’s prior coverage here.