American pork producers could be in trouble, after a North Carolina test case awarded more than $50 million in damages to the neighbors of a hog farm for the nuisance it causes them.
After a three-week trial, North Carolina’s East District federal court agreed with the 10 plaintiffs that the owner of the pigs on the Kinlaw Farm in Bladen County, Murphy-Brown—not to be confused with the soon-to-be-revived TV show—had “substantially and unreasonably” interfered with their use and enjoyment of their property.
In less legalistic terms, the farm stank so badly that the plaintiffs couldn’t have barbecues and parties, had to shut their windows all the time, and even complained of health problems as a result of the foul smell.
“We are pleased with the verdict,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Mona Lisa Wallace. “These cases are about North Carolina family property rights and a clean environment.”
Here’s what the complaint said: “Plaintiffs have suffered episodes of noxious and sickening odor, onslaughts of flies and pests, nausea, burning and watery eyes, stress, anger, worry, loss of use and enjoyment of their property, inability to comfortably engage in outdoor activities, cookouts, gardening, lawn chores, drifting of odorous mist and spray onto their land, inability to keep windows and doors open, difficulty breathing and numerous other harms.”
Murphy-Brown is part of Smithfield Foods, which is the largest pork producer in the world. Smithfield is owned by China’s WH Group.
The jury said Murphy-Brown/Smithfield had to pay each of the 10 plaintiffs $75,000 in compensatory damages, plus $5 million in punitive damages. The company said it would appeal to the Fourth Circuit.
“These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations,” the company said.
There is indeed a lot for Smithfield and the wider industry to fear here. This was a so-called bellwether case that could be used as precedent in other, similar cases. Another one is coming up next month, involving the same lawyers that represented the plaintiffs here, and more hig-related nuisance cases are scheduled for later this year.