This morning, a jury in the third of twenty-six federal nuisance trials brought against Murphy-Brown LLC, the world’s largest hog producer and a subsidiary of the Chinese-owned conglomerate Smithfield Foods, awarded six plaintiffs $473.5 million in damages. Because of North Carolina’s cap on punitive damages, however, the verdict is likely to be reduced to about $94 million.
This verdict follows two previous victories for the plaintiffs in these cases. In the first, a $50 million verdict, divided among ten plaintiffs, was subsequently reduced to just over $3 million because of the punitive-damages cap. In the second, two plaintiffs were awarded more than $25 million—in what was thought to be Murphy-Brown’s strongest case—but their award was reduced to about $630,000.
These three cases, and the twenty-three still on the docket, all revolve around similar claims. As the INDY documented last year in a three-part investigative series, many of the mostly poor, African-American neighbors of hog farms have long claimed that the farms’ methods of waste disposal—essentially, storing waste in open-air cesspools, then spraying liquified waste into the air when those lagoons fill up—have made their lives miserable.
The verdicts have rocked Smithfield—and Big Pork as a whole. Last year, the industry leaned on its allies in the General Assembly to pass a law (over Governor Cooper’s veto) to further limit the amount future plaintiffs could receive in compensatory damages in nuisance lawsuits. Then this year, those allies went to bat for the industry again, restricting who can file a nuisance lawsuit. Under the new law (again passed over Cooper’s veto), you have to live within a half-mile of the farm, and the farm has to have been slapped with a civil enforcement action or criminal conviction over the alleged nuisance. Given the exceedingly lackluster state of North Carolina’s regulatory regime, that’s effectively a get-out-of-jail card.
Even with those new protections in place, these verdicts have frightened the industry. After the second verdict came down in early July, the industry and its friendly politicians held a rally at the Duplin County farm that was the focal point of that trial. (Like all of the lawsuits, that claim was directed at Murphy-Brown, not the individual farmer.) There, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest told the crowd, “It’s lawsuits like these that are going to put our family farms out of business, that end up ruining the economy of North Carolina for tens of thousands of workers.”
And at a meeting this morning at the State Fairgrounds that drew state and national politicians and agricultural officials, U.S. Representative David Rouzer, a Republican from Seventh Congressional District in eastern North Carolina and the event’s host, called the verdicts a “crisis,” as NC Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg reported. U.S. Senator Thom Tillis said the state needed to prevent the lawyers bringing these suits from “spreading like a cancer
This latest verdict will do little to calm Smithfield’s nerves. For the first time, it amounts to real money—and there are twenty-three more lawsuits, and roughly 480 more plaintiffs, to go.