Every livestock farmer’s worst nightmare just came true. Earlier last year, juries in three separate trials in Raleigh, North Carolina, awarded punitive damages of more than $500 million to neighbors of a North Carolina hog farmer. The judgment must be overturned, farm groups told a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, yesterday.
Plaintiffs claimed the odor and truck noise related to the farms should be declared a nuisance. The first judgment from these trials is the subject of this appeal.
But runaway damages awards based on commonplace and highly regulated farm activities would cause enormous harm to farmers and rural communities, the brief filed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers Council, North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, and North Carolina Pork Council said.
Attorneys noted the North Carolina Right to Farm Act, which recognizes that normal farming practices do not constitute a nuisance, insulates farmers from these types of suits.
What’s more, North Carolina law states that punitive damages should be awarded only if the defendant has acted with “fraud, malice, or willful or wanton conduct.” In the words of the statute, “it means more than gross negligence,” the brief said. But here, the hog farmer was in full compliance with North Carolina’s comprehensive regulatory regime as well as industry-wide practices — conditions that should insulate defendants from punitive damages.
And although the suit was aimed at pork processor Murphy-Brown, the practical result of the judgment is that the farmers involved will be unable to continue as hog farmers in the state, the brief said.
As disastrous as the ruling is for the farmers, the damage likely won’t stop there. The groups told the court that virtually any farm, anywhere, could be subject to nuisance litigation if the ruling were allowed to stand: “The only winners from this litigation are plaintiffs and their entrepreneurial lawyers, who walk away with windfall damages and enormous fees unrelated to any plausible measure of harm,” they wrote. “The losers are rural communities that stand to shed dollars, jobs, and economic and social stability, and consumers who lose the benefits of reliable and efficient methods of agricultural production.”
Finally, the brief warned the court that jury selection had been restricted to people who lived in urban areas, none of whom had been permitted to visit the farms in question. The combination of a jury unfamiliar with farm country, let alone the farms in question, it said, leaves agricultural communities doubtful that they can get a fair hearing from the court system.
A copy of the brief is available here.