For those of you who have been following our coverage of the commercial hog-farming industry in North Carolina, an update: Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt ruled that the twenty-six federal nuisance lawsuits filed against the pork giant Murphy-Brown can finally go to trial—an important turning point in a high-profile and potentially game-changing case in a state where hog farming is serious business.
The lawsuits were filed by more than five hundred plaintiffs living near Murphy-Brown LLC’s industrial hog farms in eastern North Carolina. The neighbors contend that the farms’ waste-management systems, which consist of storing excess excrement in massive open-air cesspools and liquifying and spraying the remaining waste onto nearby fields, negatively affect their health and quality of life. They argue that Murphy-Brown’s multibillion-dollar parent company, Smithfield Foods, has the financial resources to manage the pigs’ waste in a way that minimizes the odor and nuisance to nearby property owners.
The issue gained notoriety this spring after Jimmy Dixon, a Republican state representative from Duplin County, introduced a controversial bill that capped the amount of money that property owners living near “agriculture and forestry operations,” including hog farms, could collect in nuisance lawsuits. Many speculated that Dixon, who has received more than $100,000 from commercial hog-farming interests throughout his political career, introduced the bill at the behest of the industry. (A provision in the bill that would have made the law apply retroactively, essentially nullifying the twenty-six federal lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, was voted down.) In May, after the legislature overrode Governor Cooper’s veto, the bill became law.
Judge Britt’s thirty-plus-page ruling dealt with various motions. Per Murphy-Brown’s request, he agreed to seal various documents and to hear a motion that would separate the trials on December 4. But he also rejected Murphy-Brown’s argument that North Carolina’s right-to-farm law would protect the company’s farms from nuisance litigation. In total, he wholly denied eight of the company’s sixteen motions, and denied two others in part.
“The parties should be prepared to discuss whether a court-hosted settlement conference and/or mediated settlement conference might be beneficial; cases for trial; final pretrial conference dates; and trial dates,” he wrote.