Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt ruled that the first set of cases in a high-profile and potentially precedent-setting trial against pork giant Murphy-Brown will begin in April.

The twenty-six 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.

[pdf-1]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.

Britt’s order states that plaintiffs will be heard in groups of eight to twelve, and the trial for the first set of plaintiffs will be heard on April 2. The second trial will be heard two weeks after the first trial concludes. After that, trials will be held once a month until the cases are concluded.

You can read the INDY’s full series on the nuisance lawsuits and the commercial hog farming industry here.