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Jury Rules Against Smithfield Farms in North Carolina Hog-Nuisance Case


In the second jury trial filed against Smithfield Foods, a jury in Raleigh, Wake County ruled in favor of plaintiffs on Friday June 29th. The case involved a bellwether couple living in the vicinity of a 4,700 hog unit contracted to Smithfield Foods.  At issue is the apparent odor, alleged contamination of ground water and deprivation of property rights as a result of operating a lagoon and pasture-spray system of manure disposal.  Although the jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages, state law will restrict compensation to $250,000 per plaintiff and the $25 million total award will probably be reduced to $650,000.


The current case in Duplin County follows a previous verdict against Smithfield in a U.S. District Court in which ten neighbors were awarded $51 million which was subsequently reduced to $3 million. This case was regarded as the best opportunity for Smithfield to mount a defense since the bellwether plaintiffs moved to the area after the hog farm commenced operation.


The Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University has emerged as the champion of homeowners in their opposition to hog farms using lagoon storage and spray disposal of manure.  North Carolina has 9 million hogs concentrated in the eastern segment of the state located among 2,000 farms contracted to a few integrators.


Alternative technology including biodigestors which could displace lagoons and are considered to be too expensive to install and operate.  Smithfield Foods, a subsidiary of the WH Group of China has indicated that should hog production become uneconomical as a result of lawsuits they will withdraw from North Carolina. The North Carolina Pork Council commented that the two verdicts would have “unforeseen economic consequences for our farmers, the state’s pork industry and North Carolina agriculture.”


During the first week of June, the North Carolina legislature overrode a veto by Governor Roy Cooper allowing to stand a law limiting the ability of residents to join a class action lawsuit against farmers and integrators as a result of nuisance.


The National Pork Producers Council president, Jim Heimerl stated, “We are deeply troubled by the decision against a farm that has operated responsibly and in compliance with state law since 1985 and maintains the highest standards of environmental and community stewardship.”


The two cases have established precedents which will result in a spate of claims of doubtful validity against operators of CAFOs. These may well include egg producers especially in areas where suburban encroachment on farms occurs.