agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

Jury awards plaintiffs more than $50 million in historic hog nuisance lawsuit

This is a developing story and will be updated tomorrow.
This post has been updated with more information about the law regarding punitive damages.

A jury deliberated for less than two days before awarding 10 plaintiffs $50 million in a hog nuisance lawsuit against Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

According to the verdict sheet, the jury unanimously agreed that Murphy-Brown, which owns the hogs at Kinlaw Farms in  Bladen County, “substantially and unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of their property.” The jury awarded each of the plaintiffs $75,000 on those grounds. But the jury also had the latitude to award punitive damages. They did so: $5 million for each plaintiff. In sum, the plaintiffs, ranging in age from their teens to 85, were awarded a total of $50.7 million.

“We are pleased with the verdict,” said Mona Lisa Wallace of Wallace and Graham law firm in Salisbury, in a prepared statement. The firm represented the plaintiffs, and Michael Kaeske argued the case.  “These cases are about North Carolina family property rights and a clean environment.  I am grateful for the hard work of our co-counsel, Mike Kaeske, and the others who worked on this trial.  We are now preparing for the next which is scheduled for the end of May.”

At least a half-dozen more trials related to nuisances from industrialized hog farms are scheduled through the fall.

Smithfield Foods, a $15 billion global food company, issued a statement in response to the verdict, which the company said it will appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court. Here it is in full:

“We are extremely disappointed by the verdict. We will appeal to the Fourth Circuit, and we are confident we will prevail. We believe the outcome would have been different if the court had allowed the jury to (1) visit the plaintiffs’ properties and the Kinlaw farm and (2) hear additional vital evidence, especially the results of our expert’s odor-monitoring tests.

These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations. The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina’s entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians.

From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine. Plaintiffs’ original lawyers promised potential plaintiffs a big payday. Those lawyers were condemned by a North Carolina state court for unethical practices. Plaintiffs’ counsel at trial relied heavily on anti-agriculture, anti-corporate rhetoric rather than the real facts in the case. These practices are abuses of our legal system, and we will continue to fight them.”

The original jury pool of 40 or so people was roughly 50 percent Black. But after Smithfield attorneys finished their challenges to the jurors, the final 10-person panel was predominantly white. (A 12th juror, also white, became ill early in the trial and could not continue serving; another juror was excused because they knew one of the witnesses..) All of the plaintiffs are Black. Most are related and live in modest homes adjacent to Kinlaw Farms, which raises 15,000 hogs owned by Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods. Next door, Don Butler, a retired corporate executive for Murphy-Brown/Smithfield lives on a palatial estate where he raises horses. (This is a different Don Butler than the one that worked for Murphy-Brown.)

Attorney Mark Anderson, who represented Murphy-Brown, cited state law that caps the amount of punitive damages. He said that punitives can’t be more than three times the compensatory damages — in this case, $225,000 per plaintiff — or $250,000, whichever is higher. If the jury awards more than that amount, the trial court is supposed to reduce the award to the maximum amount.

However, Michelle Nowlin, clinical professor of law and supervising attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University, said the standards could be different because this trial was held in federal court, not state court. But if the ratio of compensatory to punitive damages is more than 1 to 10, then the award could be reviewed; the extra damages aren’t prohibited, but do receive additional scruinty. If that standard applies in this case, the punitive awards could be capped at $750,000 per plaintiff.

Update: Nowlin later added that the state statute does apply. Some other states have found caps to be unconstitutional, but North Carolina is not one of them. In other states, judges have the discretion to uphold a jury’s award, as long as the judge determines the award is not “excessive.” In North Carolina, though, the judge does not have this discretion.

The state statue also prohibits the attorneys and the court from informing the jury of the cap on punitive damages.

Nowlin was not involved in the case, but is an expert in agricultural law and policy, and led the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Hog Industry Project.

Nonetheless,, Nowlin wrote in an email. “to award any punitive damages, the jury was required to find that the company committed fraud, or acted with malice, or engaged in willful or wanton conduct.”

“This is a significant victory for the community members who live next to these factory feedlots,” she said in a written statement. “They have suffered indescribable insults, not just from the immediate impacts of the feedlots themselves, but also from decades of government failure to come to their aid. Litigation was their last chance for justice, and this verdict and award will help them move forward.”

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