For an industry used to getting its way, the jury’s verdict was a stunning rebuke.
On Thursday in federal court, the jury awarded 10 plaintiffs who live adjacent to an industrialized hog farm $75,000 each in compensatory damages, plus another $5 million apiece for punitive damages. The total: Upward of $50 million, an historic amount, assessed against Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.
Kinlaw was not the defendant; the hogs are owned by Murphy-Brown/Smithfield, and Kinlaw is responsible for raising them, but every other part of the farm’s operation is dictated by the company.
Because of a state law capping damages a jury can award, the breathtaking figure might not survive a legal challenge and could be reduced. But for the residents — most of them, related — of Pearl Lloyd Road in rural Bladen County, the judgment carries not only tangible benefits but also symbolic ones.
The case pitted North Carolina’s behemoth hog industry — the second-largest in the nation — against working-class, rural Black families. Murphy-Brown/Smithfield wields enormous power: in the legislature, in local governments, in politics, even at universities. But one place where the hog industry is on slippery footing is before a jury. Because jurors can look at a tornado of buzzards circling a dead box, can view photos of hogs wading in their own feces and urine, can listen to the dispassionate scientific testimony and the passionate narrative of the plaintiffs. Jurors can evaluate the evidence — and they can empathize.The $50m judgment carries not only tangible benefits but also symbolic ones Click To Tweet
For years, the plaintiffs testified, life next to Kinlaw Farms has been hellacious: Acrid odor from the lagoons and the manure spray fields barges into their yards and homes. Flies swarm, and buzzards loiter in their yards, waiting to feast on hog carcasses in the farm’s dead box. Scientists found DNA from hogs’ fecal bacteria on the side of their homes. All of this, they testified — and photos shown the jury from inside the filthy barns amplfied the point — harmed their property values and eroded their quality of life.
Murphy-Brown/Smithfield, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued, has the money — $452 million in operating profits — to upgrade their farms’ lagoon systems to reduce the odor and the nuisance, but have chosen to take the cheaper way out.
The jury agreed. But the 10-person panel could have stopped there, awarding merely compensatory damages for quality-of-life issues. Instead, jurors determined that the evidence met a higher threshold. To award punitive damages, jurors had to find that the company “committed fraud, or acted with malice, or engaged in willful or wanton conduct” — which indicates how appalled they were. Read more