A rather bizarre case out of Colorado this year exemplifies that even though the right to farm is supported by state and county statutes, anyone can still sue for anything. The eventual verdict did demonstrate that the right to farm cannot be circumvented so easily. Victory, however, was not cheap.
The trouble all began on July 20, 2012 when the Delta County Commissioners approved a land use change to provide for an organic, free range chicken laying facility of two 15,000-hen barns to be located just north of Hotchkiss, Colo. Immediately, before construction began, a group of neighbors sued, alleging the organic chickens were not agriculture, but a factory farm. Ultimately, the 7th Judicial District ruled against the farmer. The Colorado Court of Appeals promptly overruled that decision. The Governor of Colorado even filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the farmer. And in October, 2015, the Supreme Court of Colorado declined to hear the case. It was a victory for the farmer, but one of the plaintiffs, Susan Raymond, quickly filed a lawsuit alleging civil trespass and sought damages for claimed health problems caused by the alleged trespass of feathers, mold and bacterial emissions.
Better yet, Plaintiff Susan Raymond is a veterinarian, and the alleged trespass occurs to her hobby farm. The defendant chicken farmer is Edwin Hostetler, the patriarch of a closely-knit Mennonite family.
Raymond proudly informed Hostetler through the media she intended to bankrupt him, even if she did not prevail at trial. She clearly made a good stab at it. By the end of the trespass case, Hostetler had spent over three quarters of a million dollars in legal fees!
The case finally went to trial in May of this year and lasted over three weeks. I have been involved in murder trials that lasted for less than a week. And they were appropriately detailed. Three weeks of reviewing feathers and mold and bacterial emissions and whining would seem like an eternity to a jury. Raymond had over 700 pictures she felt documented her claims. What she failed to prove was that any of the alleged contaminants actually came from the chicken farm. And she could not establish that she was sick because of the alleged trespassing contaminants.
I do not know anything about this case other than the numerous articles I read online. My suspicion is that Raymond’s lawyer could not control the client. Her attorney may not have even tried. It is also widely believed that animal rights activists were supporting Raymond in this pursuit.
From the observations of a reporter who sat through the trial, it was obvious that Raymond, as a professional in a rural community, believed she had authority over neighboring property. I often think small towns have a pecking order that makes the caste system in India look kind.
Apparently Hostetler was his best witness. According to reports, he maintained himself with dignity and restraint and even suggested that some of the hay issues Raymond blamed on him happened because she made hay too soon. In a rural community like this, suing someone like Hostetler, is a little like suing God. You’d best have a very good case.
After three weeks of testimony, the jury of eight convened with 26 jury instructions. They returned in an hour with a verdict for the farmer. No trespass. No damages.
An hour of jury deliberations tells me that Raymond had no case although she got her days in Court. The last article I read suggested that some ag groups were assisting Hostetler in paying down his legal fees, and his community was holding bake sales.
I wonder if Raymond ever contemplated what life would be like in her neighborhood if she pursued her case, yet ultimately lost, but did not bankrupt Hostetler? It seems the chickens are there to stay, and Raymond gets to eat crow.