In the state of North Carolina, a total of 541 residents are currently suing Smithfield Foods’ subsidiary Murphy-Brown over the alleged use of liquid swine waste by hog farmers. According to the suits, the spray attracts flies, causes strong odors and other problems. But on Monday, the state passed House Bill 467, which limited the financial payoff from citizen lawsuits except for lawsuits that are currently pending in federal court. Thus, the bill will only have an effect on future lawsuits. (RELATED: This new bill would allow farmers to sue if GMO crops invade their property).
Initially, there were no exemptions included in the bill at all – that is, it would have impacted both future lawsuits and lawsuits that are pending. However, this proposal was shot down by House Republicans, who argued that it would be unconstitutional it interfere with an ongoing lawsuit, and that doing so would also deprive citizens of their property rights.
According to Republican Representative Jimmy Dixon, a sponsor of the bill, the residents who were filing the lawsuits against Murphy-Brown “are being prostituted for money” by opportunistic lawyers who are endlessly on the lookout for new clients. “These allegations are at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies,” Dixon added. “When you talk about spraying effluent on peoples’ houses and peoples’ cars, that does not exist.”
Other republicans made the case that altering the rules on existing cases is unwise, inappropriate and irresponsible. Representative Michael Speciale, for example, argued that it was inappropriate for lawmakers “to single out a specific court case and try to determine the outcome.” Representative John Blust said, “We don’t need to be rushing in at the last minute and bailing out a defendant.”
Still, those who are defending the bill claim that the legislation was necessary to prevent hog farmers from experiencing financial ruin. They describe the bill as a reasonable response to trivial lawsuits brought about by neighbors who are merely inconvenienced by the spray’s odor. Indeed, a statement from the North Carolina Pork Council said, “Farmers continue to believe that this clarification is appropriate to apply to pending cases as well as future cases,” adding, “Many farmers need this protection from predatory lawyers who wish to use our farms to line their pockets.”
But the residents who are bringing the lawsuits argue that the spray’s odor is no joke. Allegedly, the liquefied waste forces neighbors to stay inside, turn up their air conditioners, purchase fragrance dispensers to mask the smell, and sometimes even leave the area for a short period of time. If these claims are all in fact true, then it is easy to see how the spray is much more than a mere inconvenience. On the contrary, it is having a direct effect on the way people live their day-to-day lives.
The official vote to apply the bill only to future lawsuits was 59-56.
This isn’t the first time that hog farmers have found themselves caught up in lawsuits, however. In 2014, Paul Dagostin of Pennsylvania was threatened with a $20 million lawsuit when neighbors complained about the overwhelming stench coming from his barn, which housed nearly 5,000 hogs.
The Pennsylvania residents that sought to bring Dagostin to court argued that the zoning laws should be changed in an effort to prevent local farms from becoming more industrialized. The primary focus of the lawsuits was on preventing pollution.
John O’Brien, himself a farmer as well as a lawyer at Snell and Wilmer, explained, “It’s a big issue especially in parts of the country like the Southeast where they produce a lot of hogs.” O’Brien also noted that the foul smell produced by hog farms had the ability to travel up to 15 to 20 miles.