Catherine Clabby

News reporter and editor. Duke University journalism faculty. Co-edit 9th Street Journal at Duke Reporters' Lab. Alum reporter @ North Carol

Jun 15, 2018
1 min read

Hog Farm Lawsuit Protections Pass - North Carolina Health News

North Carolina legislators once again have moved to reduce this state’s pork industry exposure to nuisance lawsuits.

House members on Thursday approved the NC Farm Act of 2018, which includes provisions that would tightly restrict when neighboring property owners can file nuisance lawsuits against farms producing odors or other noxious conditions.

The bill passed in the Senate late Thursday without debate, despite claims by opponents on both sides of the aisle in recent days that it improperly weakened the property rights of state residents.

“I read this provision to actually be protective of private property rights not to harm private rights,” Rep. Kelly Hastings (R-Cherryville) said Thursday, expressing support before the 65-42 affirmative House vote.

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Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Autryville) meets with some of the hundreds of farmers who crowded the galleries of the House of Representatives to listen to the first debate on the Farm Bill Wednesday. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Led by Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Warsaw) and Sen. Brent Jackson, (R-Autryville), supporters said more limits on the nuisance suits are imperative after hog farm neighbors in Bladen County in April won the first of 26 nuisance cases pending against Murphy-Brown LLC, the hog-farming division of Smithfield Foods.

Those cases allege that Smithfield, now owned by WH Group of China, has not invested in waste management upgrades on more than 1,000 farms that raise its hogs in Eastern North Carolina. That’s despite neighbors’ decades-long complaints about odors and other impacts from their open-lagoon and field-spraying systems.

No one was more passionate in opposition Thursday than Rep. John Blust, (R-Greensboro). A lawyer who is retiring from the General Assembly this year, Blust spoke at length, urging fellow legislators to take more time to assess whether the measure was necessary and fair.

“We’re taking a side in a dispute, saying we, we in the legislature … know better than the court. We know better than the facts. We know better than the law,” Blust said. “We’re going to protect one litigant, and we’re going to say to the other: ‘You don’t matter. You don’t count.’”

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Rep. John Blust (R-Greensboro) spoke at length against the bill on both days of the debate. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“It’s because the one side has the ear of the powers that run this institution,” he added.

House speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) fired back, noting that all legislative rules were followed in the hearing of the bill, which was heard in Senate and House committees before votes in each chamber.

Vigorously supported by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, the nuisance limits in the bill build on a law passed last year that strictly capped payments in such lawsuits. The new measure would prohibit a plaintiff from obtaining punitive damages in court unless a farm was implicated in criminal convictions or government enforcement actions.

In addition, only people living within half a mile of a farm can file such lawsuits. And they must act within a year of a farming operation starting or undergoing a “fundamental” change.

Existing state right-to-farm law says changes in ownership, size or what’s produced on a farm do not qualify as fundamental changes.

Thursday’s vote came as a second hog-farm nuisance trial is underway just a few blocks away from the General Assembly in Raleigh. Among witnesses questioned in U.S. District Court under oath there this week was Gregg Schmidt, Smithfield’s hog product division president.

In a May letter from Schmidt to North Carolina growers that Smithfield hires to raise its hogs, the executive described the successful lawsuit as a massive threat, according to a federal court filing.

“[T]his verdict poses a dire threat to our company, our growers, the pork industry and all agriculture. In fact, it is a threat to rural North Carolina. And it is a threat to the entire economy of North Carolina,” Schmidt wrote.

But one lawyer for the plaintiffs in the nuisance cases questioned the constitutionality of the nuisance language in the farm bill, which explicitly states it won’t affect existing lawsuits.

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Rep. Dennis RIddell (R-Snow Camp) has long championed the idea of legally selling raw milk in North Carolina. He proposed an amendment to allow for the practice during Wednesday’s debate and to his pleasure, it succeeded. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Lawyer John Hughes from the Wallace & Graham law firm in Salisbury said he found particularly troubling the requirement that nuisance cases be filed within one year after a perceived nuisance emerges.

“[T]he “one-year” language in the bill is nothing less than a ‘get out of jail free’ card for Big Pork,” Hughes said, noting that all “industrialized hog operations in the state were built by 1997.”

During debate in the House of Representatives late Wednesday evening, lawmakers greenlighted an amendment to the bill which allows for the sale of raw milk to people who have purchased a share of a milk-producing animal such as a goat or a cow.

Next legislators send the bill to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He can sign it, veto it, or take no action at all, which would result in it becoming law.