This is a breaking news story. Look for more in-depth analysis of the trial and the significance of the verdict on Monday.
After three days of deliberation, a 12-person federal jury has awarded Elvis and Vonnie Williams more than $25 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a hog nuisance suit against the world’s largest pork producer, Murphy-Brown/Smithfield.
The Williamses live in Duplin County near a 4,780-head industrialized hog farm. Joey Carter owns the farm, but Murphy-Brown owns the pigs and dictates every aspect of the operation. That includes the waste management system, composed of open-pit lagoons and spray fields, which stink and attract flies, gnats, buzzards, as well as generate dust and truck traffic.
The jury awarded each Williams $65,000 in compensatory damages and $12.5 million apiece in punitive damages. A jury can award punitive damages only if it finds a defendant acted “intentionally, maliciously, or with utter disregard for the rights and interests of the plaintiff.”
Juries also use punitive damages to deter further wrongdoing by the defendant or others.
A state cap on punitive damages, though, limits the amount to no more than $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater. In this case, the greater amount would be $250,000 each, for a total of $315,000 per plaintiff. The judge is in charge of reducing the amount; state law prevents juries from knowing in advance that there is a cap on punitive damages.
It is expected that Murphy-Brown will appeal to the Fourth Circuit.
This case was considered the defense’s strongest. Per the court, the plaintiffs attorneys and the defense attorneys alternate between choosing the parties for each trial. The plaintiffs’ attorneys at Wallace and Graham in Salisbury chose the parties in the first trial, which ended in a $50 million judgment for the plaintiffs, reduced to $3.25 million. The defense team at McGuireWoods chose the parties in this trial. The trial lasted nearly a month, and was extremely contentious.
At one point, the defense motioned for a mistrial because a juror had informed the court that another juror had seen something on the internet about the NC Farm Act. The Act, which is now law, was written specifically to all but prohibit neighbors from suing industrialized hog farms.