Hog farm ruling sets “despicable” precedent for agriculture

In late April a federal jury, after less than two days of deliberation, found in favor of 10 neighbors of an eastern North Carolina hog farm, awarding them $750,000 in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages over complaints of odor and noise from the farm.

The jury unanimously agreed that Murphy-Brown, which owns the hogs at Kinlaw Farms in Bladen County, “substantially and unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of their property.” Murphy-Brown, the hog production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, will appeal the court verdict against one of its contract pork producers to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which is based in Richmond, Va.

The National Pork Producers Council closely monitored the case and called the nuisance lawsuit “frivolous” and an “unwarranted attack on livestock agriculture.” NPPC pointed out that Smithfield operated in compliance with federal and state laws, including applicable occupational health and safety rules. The case was the first of several nuisance lawsuits brought by North Carolina residents against hog operations in the state with at least six more trials scheduled through this fall.

This first case was being closely watched nationally by agriculture, environmental groups and animal rights groups and it sets a precedent that could have ripple effects throughout production agriculture. Smithfield thinks the result would have been different if the jury could have actually visited the farm and learned more about odor monitoring being conducted.

“The recent jury verdict in a nuisance lawsuit involving a Murphy-Brown contract hog farm is deeply troubling,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Before a jury can award millions of dollars in damages for so-called nuisance odors from a farm, that jury should at least be allowed to visit the farm and hear evidence about actual odor measurements at the farm. 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.”

In a statement issued by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation and the North American Meat Institute, the groups expressed their concerns.

“The recent jury verdict against a North Carolina hog farm is a blatant assault on animal agriculture and on rural America. If replicated, it will raise the price of food for consumers. It also will adversely affect farmers at a time when they are adopting innovation and technology to increase sustainability. It also set a dangerous precedent that already is being used in other cases,” the statement said. “The U.S. animal agriculture industry agrees with Agriculture Secretary Perdue’s characterization of the verdict as ‘despicable’ and with his opinion that it should be overturned. This miscarriage of justice must be rectified to ensure that the anti-agriculture advocates can’t continue to attack America’s farmers and ranchers.

“Farmers and ranchers are among the best stewards of the environment and strive to be good neighbors. They shouldn’t be hauled into court for trying to do the right thing on their farms every day.”

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