After losing three historic hog nuisance lawsuits, Smithfield Foods has agreed to enter into “alternative dispute resolution” with attorneys representing neighbors of North Carolina industrialized hog farms. In an Aug. 23 letter to Smithfield growers and employees, CEO Ken Sullivan wrote that the company will enter “concurrent mediation discussions in an effort to resolve these matters.”
This disclosure, which is more precise than the “alternative dispute resolution” mentioned in federal court documents, contradicts statements by Rep. Jimmy Dixon less than a month ago.
At a National Agriculture Roundtable earlier this month, Dixon, who is from Duplin County, the heart of hog country, proclaimed that he had entertained “special meetings with high-level officials from Smithfield. And they said they will not settle.”
Mediation proceedings are confidential. Depending on the terms, only certain details of the outcome are public. It is also possible that mediation talks could break down.
As these mediation discussions begin, attorneys for both the plaintiffs and defense have agreed to allow the first three verdicts to go to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Appellate courts can take months, and in some cases, years to render a decision.
A gag order implemented by US District Court Judge Earl Britt limits what attorneys for Smithfield and the neighbors can say to the media. (That order is being appealed by Smithfield and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.) Ryke Longest, director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy, is not involved in the lawsuit. He said he interpreted the letter to mean that “the parties have agreed it’s more productive to let the appeals go forward, to discuss mediation and continue the trial schedule.” It would also be very difficult for attorneys to prepare for future district court trials while simultaneously heading to the appellate court in Virginia — and entering mediation.
The fourth hog nuisance trial, originally scheduled for next week, has been postponed until mid-November. This case involving Sholar Farms in Duplin County, could be pivotal in that there is no “family farmer” for Smithfield to hide behind. Sholar is owned by Smithfield and operated by company employees — not contract growers.
In the previous trials, Smithfield owned the hogs, but the individual contract growers owned and operated the farm. Although Smithfield has always been the defendant, the company has repeatedly said that its contract farmers would be hurt by its legal losses. That is true, but by choice. Smithfield has elected to “depopulate” or withdraw its pigs from the farms rather than take steps to upgrade its waste systems.
Smithfield lost the first three cases, in which the juries awarded neighbors of the industrialized hog farms not only compensation for the harm to their quality of life, but also historic sums in punitive damages, whose totals ranged from $25 million to $475 million. Juries can award punitive damages if they believe a company has acted with malice or disregard for the plaintiffs, although the amount is capped in North Carolina. If the verdicts are sustained on appeal, the neighbors will receive from $315,000 to $15 million each, depending on the case.
Sullivan’s letter goes on to say that the company “looks forward to proceeding to the Fourth Circuit and finding ways to move forward so we can return our full attention to providing good food to millions of people around the world. Responsibly.”