On Sunday, state Representative Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, published a remarkable op-ed in the Goldsboro News-Argus. Reacting to the $25.1 million verdict that came down against Smithfield Foods Friday in the second of twenty-six scheduled hog-farm-nuisance trials taking place in Raleigh, Dixon, an unabashed Smithfield apologist, lashed out at the plaintiffs’ lawyers (who are trying to “rape these families” and have “raped and prostituted” their clients) and Judge Earl Britt (“who doesn’t have his thumb on the scales; his sorry ass is sitting on the scales!!!” [sic]).
Family farmers, he argued, were under attack: “We, the people must continue to rally and demand justice for the property rights of our hard-working family farmers … and we must do it in the court of public opinion because we are damn sure not getting justice in Judge Earl Britt’s courtroom.”
For years, this is how Dixon and other Big Pork allies have framed the debate over the noxious odors and swarms of buzzards and pests that the mostly poor, mostly African-American neighbors of the state’s hog farms have complained about: as the meager family farmer being beaten down by the greedy out-of-state lawyer who is willing to burn and pillage North Carolina’s agriculture industry in his quest for lucre.
Only they, the brave souls of the General Assembly, stand in the way.
In 2013, about five hundred neighbors of farms that raise Smithfield pigs sued the company, alleging that the farms’ method of waste disposal, which involves open-air cesspools and spraying liquefied waste onto fields, infringes on their right to enjoy their property.
Weeks later, the legislature vastly expanded the protections it affords agricultural operations and eliminated a provision that said that nuisance protections don’t apply to negligent operators.
Then, in 2017, after the lawsuits survived Smithfield’s motions to dismiss, Dixon pushed through legislation (over Governor Cooper’s veto) that dramatically narrowed the amount of compensatory damages plaintiffs in future nuisance lawsuits could collect. Dixon tried to make this retroactive, effectively negating the cases against Smithfield, but he couldn’t get enough Republicans to go along.
And in this year’s short sessionwhich opened a few weeks after a jury in the first Smithfield trial awarded ten plaintiffs more than $50 millionthe legislature went to bat for Big Pork again, this time with Senator Brent Jackson (himself a farmer) spearheading the Farm Bill.
“Whereas,” it begins, “frivolous nuisance lawsuits threaten the very existence of farming in North Carolina ….” A federal court, the bill continues, had “incorrectly” interpreted state law, and now the legislature “regrettably … is again forced to make plain its intent.”
Its intent, it seems, is that the neighbors of shit-spraying hog farmsnot just the farms involved in the Smithfield litigation, but the more than two thousand hog operations across the stateshould have almost no legal recourse.
Under the billpassed last week over Cooper’s vetowould-be plaintiffs have to live within a half-mile of the alleged nuisance and can’t file a lawsuit in most cases if the farm has been in operation for more than a year. In addition, plaintiffs can’t recover any punitive damages if the farm in question hasn’t previously been slapped with a criminal conviction or civil enforcement action over the alleged nuisance.
Given the state of North Carolina’s underresourced regulatory apparatus, one attorney for environmental advocates points out, “that substantially limits if not eliminates” the possibility of punitive damages.
It’s not like industries in North Carolina aren’t already shielded from angry juries. For two decades, the state has had a strict cap on punitive damages that will render the first two verdicts against Smithfield a relative slap on the wrist. The first judgment, for more than $50 million, has already been reduced to just over $3 million. The most recent verdict, for more than $25 million, will come down to $630,000.
There are, as the plaintiffs’ attorneys have argued, proven steps Smithfield could have taken to address these issues; the company just didn’t want to spend the money. These juries wanted to send the company a message. Thanks to the legislature, however, that message is but dirt to be brushed off Smithfield’s shoulders.
To recap: Step one, crack down on how much bad actors can be sued for. Step two, crack down on who can be sued. Step three, crack down on compensatory damages. Step four, crack down on who can sue and who can receive punitive damages. Add it all up: Big Pork can do whatever it wants.
And, contra Dixon’s rhetoric, it is Big Pork we’re talking about. Farmers don’t have the resources to upgrade their waste-disposal tech. Smithfield, a multibillion-dollar Chinese-owned conglomerate, does.
Make no mistake: This isn’t about bucolic farms and family farmers. This is about power and money protecting profits and shareholders. Don’t let Big Pork’s pawns pretend otherwise.