After less than two days of deliberation, a North Carolina jury awarded $50 million to neighbors in a hog nuisance lawsuit against Murphy-Brown LLC., hog production division of Smithfield Foods. National Pork Producers Council calls the verdict a misuse of the legal system to attack the farm sector.
The late-Thursday verdict is the first to come in a series of federal lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown. In this particular case, 10 neighbors contended Kinlaw Farms, contract grower for Murphy-Brown, was the source of “noxious, sickening and overwhelming odors.”
“The verdict this week in a frivolous nuisance lawsuit against a North Carolina hog farm represents an unwarranted attack on livestock agriculture.The U.S. 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,” says NPPC, the global voice of the pork industry. “The misuse of our legal system to attack a farm sector that supports more than 500,000 U.S. jobs must come to an end.”
According to the verdict sheet, 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.”
In response to the verdict, Smithfield Foods issued the following statement, “We are extremely disappointed by the verdict. We will appeal to the Fourth Circuit, and we are confident we will prevail. We believe the outcome would have been different if the court had allowed the jury to (1) visit the plaintiffs’ properties and the Kinlaw farm and (2) hear additional vital evidence, especially the results of our expert’s odor-monitoring tests.
“These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations. The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina’s entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians.
“From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine. Plaintiffs’ original lawyers promised potential plaintiffs a big payday. Those lawyers were condemned by a North Carolina state court for unethical practices. Plaintiffs’ counsel at trial relied heavily on anti-agriculture, anti-corporate rhetoric rather than the real facts in the case. These practices are abuses of our legal system, and we will continue to fight them.”
Meat industry disappointed the jury failed to actually visit the farm.
“The jury verdict and award in the lawsuit filed in North Carolina against Smithfield Foods represent a blow to jobs and the state’s economy fueled by anti-animal agriculture rhetoric. Smithfield Foods is one of the largest employers in the state, bringing economic opportunity to thousands of North Carolina residents. Smithfield operated in compliance with federal and state laws, including applicable occupational health and safety rules. It is troubling that the jury did not have the opportunity to visit either Smithfield’s operation or the plaintiffs’ property to assess for themselves the circumstances and understand the facts – facts that cannot be conveyed in a meaningful way within the courtroom’s walls. If this verdict and award stand, they could have a chilling effect on animal agriculture within the state,” states Barry Carpenter, North American Meat Institute president and CEO.
The jury awarded each of the plaintiffs $75,000 and also awarded each plaintiff $5 million in punitive damages, totaling $50.7 million.
At least a half-dozen more trials in North Carolina related to nuisances are scheduled through the fall.