It’s the livestock producers who are caught in the crossfires of class-action lawsuits seeking huge monetary awards against agriculture, a panel of experts told attendees this week at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 100th Annual Convention.
Panelists Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council; Harrison Pittman, director of the National Agriculture Law Center and Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, discussed the recent lawsuits targeting production agriculture and suggested actions that state Farm Bureaus can take to fight these targeted attacks.
AFB Women’s Leadership Committee member Lorenda Overman, moderator of the panel, summarized the law firms’ strategy in North Carolina and the effect of the verdicts on farmers.
“On paper it looks like they’re suing Smithfield Foods, but the farmer is the one on trial,” Overman says. “Once the trial is over and the verdict is read, the farms are depopulated, leaving the farmer with no income. The juries have awarded huge damages, even though all of these farms were in compliance with the law.”
Curliss said that four recent trials in North Carolina have resulted in more than $550 million in damages for 26 plaintiffs, with hundreds of other plaintiffs currently awaiting trials.
In July 2018, a North Carolina jury awarded more than $25 million in a lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, alleging the hog farm owned by Joey Carter was a nuisance, despite the fact that Carter had always followed and exceeded the state’s laws, invested in modern technologies and responded promptly to any concerns raised by his neighbors.
“If it can happen to Joey Carter, it can happen to anyone, anywhere,” says Curliss. “There were 75 ‘new houses’ built after the farm was in place. I ask you: Is that a nuisance?”
Pittman says that years ago, there were protections against nuisance lawsuits if a neighbor moved where a farm already existed. However, it wasn’t useful enough for cases involving agriculture, so states began to draft right-to-farm laws in the 1970s, and there are now right-to-farm laws in every state.
“This battle used to play out solely in the judicial branch when legislators decided to stand up for agriculture,” Pittman says. “Now you have a court stating that it won’t apply the right-to-farm statutes at all.”
Hurst cites the $289-million verdict in the recent lawsuit against Monsanto targeting glyphosate.
“This is a problem we all face as farmers,” Hurst says. “Of all the tools we use, there’s nothing safer than Roundup.”
Hurst says right-to-farm laws have to be drafted, but it is a back-and-forth process. “In Missouri we were successful in making changes to nuisance laws by limiting damages, which made a huge difference in the litigation climate.”
We have the ability to make changes in state legislatures, Hurst says, but if public perception continues to decline it will be much more difficult.
“These things would not be happening without a change in how the public perceives farms and agriculture,” Hurst says. “There’s a real threat to our farms from these lawsuits. The legal environment is important, and that’s where Farm Bureau makes a difference. We have the ability to lobby and change laws. But if we lose the public’s respect as family farmers, then we lose the ability to make legislative changes.”
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