Court asked to lift gag order in North Carolina nuisance suits

The National Pork Producers Council and the North Carolina Pork Council filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of lifting a judge’s gag order on communications related to nuisance lawsuits filed against more than two dozen North Carolina hog farms.

Judge Earl Britt, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, in late June imposed the gag order on the parties, lawyers and potential witnesses in lawsuits brought against Murphy-Brown, the hog production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. The judge said a “significant increase in trial publicity” and the “volume and scope of prejudicial publicity” about the first two cases — one decided in early May and the other two days after the gag order was implemented — could taint future cases.

NPPC and NCPC filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., asking that it grant Murphy-Brown’s petition to vacate the District Court’s prior restraint on speech, noting that “All but the most carefully crafted, narrow gag orders are unconstitutional.”

NPPC and NCPC argued that there is no compelling need for the gag order, the District Court did not consider alternatives to the order — including the jury selection process or jury instructions — the order is overbroad and vague, and it won’t be effective. On the latter point, they said it’s “not reasonable to think that any gag order will reduce coverage of these cases or blunt the public’s interest” in them. In three of the nuisance cases decided over the past three months, including one last week, juries have levied a combined $99 million in compensatory and punitive damages against family farmers over noise and odors from their hog farms. A total of 26 lawsuits have been filed.

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