agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

Federal judge reduces damages in hog nuisance case — far below the total of $50 million

Hogs stand in feces and urine inside a barn at Kinlaw Farms in Bladen County. Last month, a federal jury awarded 10 neighbors of the farm a total of more than $50 million in damages against Murphy-Brown. A federal judge today reduced the total damages to $3.25 million. (Photos from court exhibits)

The 10 winning plaintiffs in a hog nuisance lawsuit won’t receive their $50 million in punitive damages  — $5 million each — against Murphy-Brown, as awarded by a jury. Instead, the total amount has been reduced to $2.5 million, just $250,000 apiece, according to a ruling handed down today by US District Court Judge Earl Britt.

Including compensatory damages for harm to their quality of life, the plaintiffs will each receive $325,000.

The first of dozens of hog nuisance lawsuits went to trial in federal court in April. After three weeks’ of proceedings, the jury ruled in favor of 10 Bladen County residents who live within a mile of Kinlaw Farms. The farm raises 15,000 hogs that are owned by Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer.

The jury had awarded each plaintiffs $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded when a jury determines a defendant, in this case, Murphy-Brown, committed fraud, or acted with malice or engaged in willful or wanton conduct.”

Whether the plaintiffs would receive the full and historic amount was in doubt almost immediately after the award was announced.

Murphy-Brown attorneys with McGuireWoods appealed the amount, based on a state law and subsequent Supreme Court case that limits punitive damages to “no more than three times  the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000 whichever is greater.”

The law capping punitive damages, passed in 1995 by the NC legislators, received wide support from the influential hog industry.

Attorneys at Wallace & Graham, who represented the plaintiffs, argued that a limitation on the amount of punitive damages is “unconstitutional as applied.” Specifically, they argued that in this case for private nuisance, the statute violates their right to a jury trial.

US District Court Judge Earl Britt agreed with the defendants.

Some states have ruled punitive damage caps as unconstitutional, but not North Carolina, Michelle Nowlin, an expert in agricultural and food law, told Policy Watch after the jury’s decision. And in other states, judges can uphold the jury’s award, as long as he or she determines the award is not “excessive.” In North Carolina, though, the judge does not have this discretion. Nor can juries be instructed about damage limitations before weighing their decision.

Murphy-Brown attorneys have said they also plan to take the case to the Fourth Circuit of Appeals.

The second hog nuisance trial begins with jury selection on Tuesday, May 29, in US District Court in Raleigh.

 

 

 

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