On Wednesday, a coalition of environmental organizations filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court seeking to strike down two recent laws passed that make it harder for neighbors of hog farms to collect damages on nuisance claims.  

The lawsuit, first reported by The News & Observer, takes aim at HB 467 and SB 711. HB 467 reduced the amount someone could receive from a nuisance lawsuit to almost nothing, while SB 711 made it nearly impossible to define any hog farm or other agriculture operation as a nuisance

Governor Cooper vetoed both bills; the Republican-dominated General Assembly, at the time operating under an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, overrode both vetoes. (Earlier this year, a state judge implied that the legislature was illegitimate for part of 2017 and all of 2018. In a recent filing in a separate case, Common Cause claimed the GOP’s supermajorities existed during the period in which these bills passed because lawmakers lied to a federal court to maintain their supermajorities.)

In this complaint, the environmental organizations—the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, or REACH; the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network; Waterkeeper Alliance; and Winyah Rivers Alliance—say these laws unconstitutionally deprive residents of property rights and due process, and violate the state constitution’s prohibition on “special legislation”—laws made for individual cases—“relating to health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances.”

“Because HB 467 and SB 711 deprive a specific class of residents of their nuisance remedies, and because the deprived class is not reasonably different from all other residents who suffer from nuisances, HB 467 and SB 711 are ‘special laws,’” the lawsuit alleges. “… These laws were adopted in response to a specific case and to existing circumstances at the time of their passage and designed to protect a special class or favored few.” 

It’s hard to argue that the laws weren’t crafted in response to a specific set of circumstances and designed to protect Big Pork. The lawmakers pushing them admitted as much at the time.

State representative Jimmy Dixon, a big recipient of the pork industry’s largesse, sponsored HB 467 in 2017 after a federal judge refused to dismiss hundreds of lawsuits filed by poor, mostly African American residents of Eastern North Carolina against Smithfield Foods, a multibillion-dollar Chinese-owned pork conglomerate. Those lawsuits alleged that its hog farms’ waste-disposal practices were making their lives miserable.

The bill initially sought to retroactively negate those pending lawsuits. When that provision was removed, a supportive senator said the bill would “insulate Smithfield from ‘the claim for damages that was in the swine farm nuisance litigation that stimulated … the need for this legislation,’” according to the complaint. Dixon told the Senate the bill was necessary because the claims in the lawsuits were “at best enormous exaggerations and at worst outright lies.”

SB 711, meanwhile, was filed in May 2018, three weeks after a federal jury in the first Smithfield trial hit the company with a $50 million verdict (later reduced to $3.25 million because of North Carolina’s punitive damages caps). The bill’s sponsor, Senator Brent Jackson, wasn’t coy: “The latest court ruling is why I am so passionate about this bill.”

In a statement to NC Policy Watch, the NC Pork Council called the lawsuit “without merit”: “This is another effort by fringe groups who are adamantly opposed to livestock agriculture. Our farms and farmers take seriously the obligation to feed people in a responsible way that protects our communities and supports North Carolina’s rural economy.”

Using not-dissimilar language, Dixon, House Speaker Tim Moore, and state Representative John Bell painted the plaintiffs as greedy muckrakers out to get decent family farmers in a statement to the N&O: “We will continue to fight for hardworking North Carolina farm families and their communities by opposing any coordinated legal assault that seeks to profit off their livelihoods and potentially shut down their farms. There is no right more fundamental than the right to feed our families.”

Here, it’s probably worth reiterating that the plaintiffs in the Smithfield lawsuit are poor and almost all black, while the company that has been profiting from their (alleged) misery has a market cap of $118.4 billion.  

Good to see our lawmakers siding with the little guys. 

Contact editor Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com. 

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