agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

The jury selected (no vegetarians), trial begins today in nuisance suit against Murphy-Brown hog farm

Photo by Michael Loudon, (Creative Commons)

Selected from a pool of 50 people, six women and six men will decide a pivotal, high-profile — and possibly historic — federal case that pits rural neighbors of an industrialized hog farm against global pork producer Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

This case, one of more than a half-dozen scheduled to be heard in US District Court in Raleigh this year, centers on whether the nuisances — odor, flies, trucks and noise — from Kimlaw Farms in Bladen County are harming the quality of life and health of its neighbors. The 10 plaintiffs in this case are requesting both compensatory damages for the impacts on the enjoyment of their property, as well as punitive damages.

Murphy-Brown owns the hogs and is the defendant, not Kimlaw, the contract farmer. Murphy-Brown counters that its farms are safe and comply with state law, and that the odors are properly managed.

The trial could last as long as four weeks; opening arguments begin today at 9 a.m.

Murphy-Brown has gone to considerable effort to thwart nuisance cases. Nationwide, Right to Farm laws, which limit nuisance claims, have been passed in all 50 states. Agricultural states, such as Iowa, Texas and North Carolina, have some of the strongest statutes that favor corporate-owned farms. In fact, the upcoming nuisance cases could be the last of its kind in North Carolina. A year ago, under pressure from the pork industry, the legislature passed a controversial law sharply curbing the rights of citizens to recover compensatory damages — money for quality of life issues — in nuisance suits.

In early versions of the bill, the legislature tried to make the law retroactive. Had lawmakers succeeded, these cases, filed in 2014, would have been moot. However, the provision was ultimately struck before the bill became law. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but lawmakers overrode it.

But last September, Murphy-Brown filed a motion asking the federal court to reinterpret the law to apply retroactively, claiming that was the legislature’s intent. The court denied the motion and allowed the cases to proceed.

Considering the enormity and complexity of the case, jury selection went quickly yesterday. US District Court Senior Judge Earl Britt  presided over the process. After extensive questioning, the number of potential jurors, all of them from counties in the Eastern District, was whittled to 43, then 24, and finally, 12: nine whites and three people of color with diverse backgrounds and jobs: industrial engineer, software developers, trucking fleet manager, college student, mechanic, nurse practitioner, computer repairman, cashier, accountant and machine technician. They live in Wake, Johnston, Granville, Vance and Franklin counties.

The lines of questioning provided insight into the issues that might arise during the trial. Among the queries:

  • “Are you a vegan or a vegetarian?” (One person said yes, made the final 24, but did not advance to the final 12.)
  • “Do any of you have asthma?” (2 did.) “Migraines?” (1 replied yes)
  • “Do you think lobbyists are more beneficial to companies than to the public?” (6 yeas)
  • “Do you think that companies shape laws that give them an unfair advantage? (9 said yes.)
  • “Do you think climate change is overrated or does not exist? (3 replied yes.)

Judge Britt, who is 86 and was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, set a firm, authoritative, yet homespun tone in the courtroom. “This will be a high-profile case,” Britt said, instructing the jury to avoid all media coverage of the trial. (He’s never sequestered a jury in his 38 years on the bench.)

And as attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defense privately conferred on the selection, he advised the jury pool, smiling,  “I tell you, that if it looks like they’re talking about you, they are.”

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