Elvis and Vonnie Williams live in Duplin County, near a 4,700-hog farm owned by Joey Carter, a former Beulaville police chief. Living near the farm, according to the couple, means having to live amid swarms of flies, a foul stench, and loud, rumbling trucks passing back and forth. These things were so unbearable, they decided to file a nuisance lawsuit – although, it was not directed toward Carter, but was instead filed against Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.
Their bet paid off. A verdict was delivered after a jury deliberated for three days behind closed doors, and the Williams were victorious. They were awarded $25 million, the second verdict for hog farm neighbors in a series filed against Smithfield Foods. In the first case, a federal jury originally awarded more than $50 million in damages to plaintiffs.
The same week of the Williams’ win, North Carolina lawmakers adopted a new Farm Act that restricts when and how neighbors can bring such claims to court moving forward. The new act includes the following stipulations:
– Only people living within a half-mile of a farm can file a nuisance lawsuit;
– Plaintiffs would be prohibited from obtaining punitive damages in court unless a farm was implicated in criminal convictions or government enforcement actions;
– The person filing suit must act within a year of a farming operation starting or undergoing a “fundamental” change. (This does not include changes in ownership, technology, product or size of the operation.)
Twenty-six lawsuits have been filed by 500 neighbors complaining about hog operations in North Carolina. Trial testimonies indicated Smithfield Foods should have taken steps to modernize manure technologies on the farm, something that has already been put into action in other states. The pork producer has said some of those technologies are too expensive at this time, estimating the cost to be $1 million per farm to change the equipment. However, the cost of litigation may make these modifications feasible, after all.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said the lawsuits like the one filed against the producer “set a dangerous precedent for American livestock agriculture,” adding, “For the second time in as many months, a North Carolina verdict has come back in favor of plaintiffs after a jury was prevented from visiting the farm subjected to baseless claims. We are deeply troubled by this decision against a farm that has operated responsibly and in compliance with state laws since 1985 and that maintains the highest standards of environmental and community stewardship…American hog farmers already face serious headwinds, including export market uncertainty caused by ongoing trade disputes. We can’t allow trial-lawyer abuse of our legal system to continue as it threatens the livelihood of livestock farming families, undermines the rural economy, and unnecessarily increases food prices for consumers.”
The $50 million verdict delivered in the first case against Smithifeld was ultimately reduced in accordance with state law to $3.25 million. A motion was granted to impose a statutory cap on punitive damages, which under current North Carolina law, are capped at three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.