Throughout the defense of House Bill 467, the controversial hog-farm protection bill that recently became law despite Governor Roy Cooper’s veto, the bill’s supporters, including Republican state representative Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County, argued that family farms need to be protected from lawsuits brought by avaricious attorneys. Those lawsuits, they argued, can bring hardworking farmers to the brink of financial ruin, hence the need for legislation to protect them.
Court documents, including a motion a federal judge ruled on last night, call into question the sincerity of this argument.
As the INDY has previously reported, HB 467 caps the amount of damages that property owners living near “agriculture and forestry operations,” including hog farms, can collect in nuisance lawsuits. Under the bill, people can only collect damages equal to the reduction in their property’s fair market value.
Much of the debate around the bill focused on twenty-six pending federal nuisance lawsuits filed by roughly five hundred people living near the hog farms against Murphy-Brown, the pork-producing subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. A previous version of the bill would have essentially nullified these lawsuits, though this provision was stricken from the bill that ultimately passed the House and Senate.
Most of the farms cited in the lawsuits are owned and operated by independent contractors who work with Murphy-Brown—and Murphy-Brown owned hogs. The lawsuits, however, are not filed against those local farmers, only Murphy-Brown. However, those farmers nonetheless loomed large among supporters of HB 467.
“This bill may discourage other lawyers from swooping into our rural communities and promising riches to neighbors willing to sue a nearby farmer,” said the N.C. Pork Council. “… This bill protects all farmers who live with the fear of being sued and bankrupted by predatory lawsuits.”
“They want to sue farmers for outrageous sums without having to prove real damages,” Dixon wrote in an April 7 op-ed in The News & Observer. “… This bill is designed to protect 50,000 hardworking North Carolina farmers who are feeding a hungry world.”
But court records show that Murphy-Brown filed a motion arguing that four or the twenty-six cases should be dismissed because those small farmers weren’t included in the cases.
According to a memorandum filed by Murphy-Brown in in September 2016, “allowing these cases to go forward without the landowners forces Murphy-Brown to defend the location of the farms, the management of the farms, and the farms’ compliance with any number of North Carolina statutes and regulations—all matters that are indisputably the legal obligation of the permit holders.”
In other words, Murphy-Brown is saying that those family farmers the bill’s supporters are defending should be part of the ongoing litigation because they’re responsible for the alleged nuisance, not Murphy-Brown. Or, in legalese, “because they have several significant interests in the outcome of this litigation, and those interests would be severely compromised by a finding of nuisance.” Because they’re not, the lawsuits should be dropped altogether.
On Thursday night, Judge W. Earl Britt rejected Murphy-Brown’s motion.
“The primary thrust of defendant’s argument rests on the purported prejudice that the landowners would suffer if a nuisance is found in these cases in their absence,” he wrote. “According to defendant, a finding of nuisance would (1) interfere with the landowners’ fundamental property rights, including their state-issued permits for lagoon use, (2) subject the landowners to a significant risk of future liability, and (3) result in the landowners being in breach of their contracts with defendant. At bottom, however, the likelihood of such harm is slight and/or speculative, and failing to join the landowners as parties would not impair or impede their ability to protect their interests relating to the swine farm operations.”
Here is Murphy-Brown’s request:
This post and its headline have been updated to better reflect the nature of Murphy-Brown’s filing, which sought to dismiss the lawsuits because the family farms weren’t included as defendants rather than add the farms as defendants in litigation.