By Catherine Clabby
State legislators appear to have abandoned a drive to restrict court awards potentially available to some 500 Eastern North Carolina residents suing the world’s largest pork producer over farm odors and other alleged nuisances.
Republican members of a Senate committee endorsed a bill Tuesday that would limit compensation in future such cases only to losses in the rental or purchase value of a dwelling.
But in step with a House measure passed two weeks ago, the senators amended the bill to apply only to lawsuits filed after the bill passes.
Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Autryville) introduced the amendment and the bill saying that limiting compensation in future cases will protect livestock farms from excessive financial awards in a nuisance lawsuit.
“We are having frivolous lawsuits and payment amounts have been substantially more than the value of any of the properties. The industry cannot withstand this,” Jackson said.
“Without the livestock industry in Eastern North Carolina tumbleweeds would be rolling down those streets,” the Jackson Farming Company founder added.
Other legal routes?
People dissatisfied with the effects of living near livestock operations could still seek compensation from offending farms under the terms of the bill, Jackson said. He said those terms would apply to lawsuits alleging negligence, trespassing, personal injury and other issues.
Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Rocky Mount), an attorney, pointed out that some legal experts, including some Republican House members and a legal expert with the libertarian John Locke Foundation, have urged legislators not to limit court awards in nuisance lawsuits because that would narrow long-standing property rights.
After Bryant asked legislative staff for clarification regarding what would be lost if the bill becomes law, a staff attorney noted that North Carolina case law is slim. That said, nuisance suits nationally have resulted in compensatory payments for medical treatment, loss of wages, repair or replacement of property and emotional distress.
Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram (D-Jackson) said the bill would adversely affect the low wealth residents and racial minorities who most frequently live near concentrated animal feeding operations, densely packed operations where livestock are raised indoors. Complainants argue the facilities produce large amounts of manure and sometimes generate odors and other nuisances such as infections that can affect neighbors for years. Often, those neighbors’ homes are worth less than many other properties to start with.
“How are we going to address the disparate impact this is going to have on low-income communities and communities of color?’ Smith-Ingram asked.
Andy Curliss, CEO of the N.C. Pork Council, had supported the bill that would affect current suits. Tuesday he told committee members that his organization supports the amended bill. Clarification of agriculture’s nuisance liability is what’s needed, he said.
“What farmers want is certainty about this and clarification,” Curliss said.