By Catherine Clabby

Republican lawmakers are moving to put strict limits on payments that people living near stinky and densely packed hog and poultry farms could win in nuisance lawsuits.

Twin House and Senate bills would limit compensatory awards to the amount of value lost in the market value of a property, never to exceed the full value of the property in question.

The measure would limit the liability of growers who raise hogs, poultry and other livestock in densely packed facilities clustered across this state. It would also shield the corporations that buy hogs, poultry and other animals from growers.

“Over the years, lawsuits have been filed and, in my humble opinion, to the purpose not of going to court and getting a resolution but to get a settlement,” Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin), a “semi-retired” poultry farmer and a primary sponsor of the bill, told members of a House judiciary committee on Wednesday.

photo shows a group of african american people
Nick Woodard (second left) of Pender County and other neighbors of confined animal facilities drove to Raleigh  to speak at Wednesday’s meeting. Pender said he and his family have lived with problems of odor and pollution from nearby hog farms for years, as well as things you can’t imagine unless you live there. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

Opponents on Wednesday said the bill is an attack on the potential  damages from active lawsuits that could go to trial soon in federal court against Murphy-Brown LLC. That company is the hog-growing subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

If passed, the bill would also narrow the impact of one of the few government venues — the courts — that North Carolina citizens can use to seek redress for the impact of living with odors, particulate air emissions and grimy traffic that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) bring to communities, they say.

“Do not pass this legislation. There is nothing wrong with the law. The issue is that Big Ag needs to clean up its act,” said Victoria Cunningham, a nurse anesthetist from Surry County who is active in efforts there to force new poultry CAFOs to reduce their environmental impacts.

For and against

The number of nuisance lawsuits against CAFO operations has grown in states with sizable livestock sectors in recent years, with neighbors winning and losing suits. In some cases, juries have awarded neighbors damages totaling millions of dollars.

Other state legislatures have limited compensation for such suits or are taking steps to do so.

The N.C. Pork Council, N.C. Poultry Federation and N.C. Farm Bureau all support the bills that would specifically limit nuisance damages in the state.

“Agriculture is our state’s number one industry and largest economic driver,” Andy Curliss, Pork Council CEO, said by email Wednesday.

“We have more than 50,000 farmers who care deeply about their communities and being a good neighbor. We would rather work with our neighbors to address problems instead of defending ourselves against frivolous nuisance complaints.”

The Farm Bureau is using stronger language. The bureau posted a blog item this week titled “North Carolinians Right to Farm is Under Attack,” which refers to the current lawsuits and the bills explicitly.

map shows different levels of poultry estimates for each river basin
The highest numbers of poultry since the 1990’s have been in the Yadkin-Pee Dee and Cape Fear basins. The Yadkin-Pee Dee Basin had the highest poultry population with bird inventories over 15 million in Union County and over 11 million in Wilkes County in 2014. Map, data courtesy: NC DEQ

“For more than two decades, two out-of-state trial lawyers have made millions suing farmers across the country. Four years ago, they came to North Carolina and started picking fights between about 90 hog farms and their neighbors, alleging the farms were nuisances,” the text states. “The lawyers told the neighbors they could recover substantial damages far exceeding the value of their homes. They didn’t ask the farmers to address the alleged nuisances—they just asked for money.”

The blog post notes that the bill doesn’t prevent a neighbor from recovering damages in a legitimate nuisance suit.

“It cuts off the incentive for lawyers to use farmers and their neighbors to grow their bank accounts,” it reads.

The Farm Bureau description of the North Carolina lawsuits are a distortion, said attorney Mona Lisa Wallace, whose firm Wallace & Graham of Salisbury represents 500 eastern North Carolina residents in the lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, the Smithfield Foods subsidiary. Smithfield Foods is now owned by a Chinese company.

Out-of-state lawyers started the suit but Wallace’s firm has been the legal counsel for more than three years, she said.

“The issue of the prior lawyers involvement is a non-issue.  It has been manufactured by a very, very powerful livestock industry public relations team who has spent millions to directly influence public opinion,” Wallace said. “Nationally recognized legal scholars, scientists and lawyers have stood behind this serious and significant litigation.”

Defendants in the cases say they have endured multiple nuisances from hog CAFOs for years that go beyond just dips in property values, which neighbors say growers and contractors have had plenty of time to fix. Other problems include CAFOs emitting noxious odors that strike at unpredictable times, releasing plumes carrying feces particles and other pollutants onto neighbors’ lands, and more.

A significant change

Nuisance lawsuits are one of the few avenues that North Carolina citizens have to challenge distressing impacts from CAFOs, said Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University.

“These people who sought legal compensation have negotiated with farmers,” she said. “They talked to the state Department of Environmental Quality and their county commissioners. They tried to negotiate with the companies. They have gotten nowhere.”

In January, the EPA’s civil rights office sent a “letter of concern” to the DEQ citing its preliminary finding that the state has not done enough to address problems linked to CAFOs in Eastern North Carolina. The letter notes impacts particularly to African-American, Latino and American Indian residents and cites claims from CAFO neighbors alleging they had been threatened for complaining.

Points of view

As the hearing began, Dixon declared there would be no vote on the bill that day, only discussion.

Some committee members as well as more than a half dozen citizens spoke against the pending bills at Wednesday’s judiciary committee meeting. But not all could. The meeting room was not large enough to accommodate all the visitors to the legislature, including some who live near CAFOS and drove two hours to oppose the bills.

One was Nick Woodard of Pender County, a plaintiff in the current Smithfield lawsuits. A former truck driver, Woodard grew up on the land where he now lives, which his grandfather purchased back in 1960. He raised his family there and his three adult children still live nearby. Hog farms got started on adjacent property in the mid-1990s, he said.

Since then he and his family have lived with problems many people have heard about, including the odor. Then there are things you can’t imagine unless you live there, Woodard said.

That includes living among packs of dogs that raid boxes of dead hogs and drag meat they rip off carcasses by their family home. Or living by roads marred by spatters of blood and rotting animal parts that spill out when trucks cart away dead hogs.

Without pressure from lawsuits, he predicted, the situation will never improve.

“We’ve been down this same road for 20 years,” Woodard said.

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Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...