N.C. hog farmers press for reversal of $500M in nuisance verdicts

 

By Daniel Fisher, Legal NewsLine

Mar 13, 2019

 

RICHMOND, Va. (Legal Newsline) - North Carolina hog farmers, supported by national farming and manufacturing groups, have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to reverse a $50 million nuisance verdict that was the opening shot in litigation that has delivered more than $500 million in verdicts for property owners who say they are being annoyed by noise and smells emanating from nearby farms.

 

In a filing this week with the federal appeals court in Virginia, the American Farm Bureau Federation said “it is no exaggeration to say the entire U.S. livestock sector is threatened” by the nuisance litigation, in juries have delivered huge punitive damages awards over farming practices that farmers say are approved by state and federal regulators.

 

Murphy-Brown, the U.S. unit of Hong Kong-based WH Group Ltd., has lost four cases so far among 26 that were consolidated before U.S. District Judge Earl Britt in Raleigh, N.C.

 

“Massive damages awards based on normal farming activity that complies with applicable regulations pose an existential threat to the livelihoods of farmers and the food security of our nation,” the Farm Bureau says in its brief.

 

Activist groups opposed to what they call “factory farming” have talked about using similar nuisance theories to sue poultry farmers, the group says, even though the plaintiffs in these cases can’t point to tangible damages such as diminished property values or health effects.

 

The North American Meat Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, Grocery Manufacturers Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce also filed amicus briefs this week. They said nuisance litigation against permitted industries will drive up consumer costs and unjustly reward entrepreneurial plaintiff attorneys.

 

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform owns Legal Newsline.

 

“Any industry in North Carolina is at risk for nuisance liability and punitive damages for conduct the legislature and administrative branches have blessed,” the National Association of Manufacturers' brief says. “The political branches, not the courts, are the proper venue for Plaintiff’s disagreement with North Carolina’s environmental policies.”

 

The North Carolina General Assembly responded to the first verdict by passing a law effectively prohibiting future nuisance lawsuits against farms that are otherwise in compliance with state and federal regulations.

 

The farmers are hoping the Fourth Circuit reverses Judge Britt for a second time. Last year, the court harshly criticized and ultimately threw out a sweeping gag order the judge imposed on all parties the same day the North Carolina legislature acted, preventing farm advocates from even discussing the case in public.

 

In its request for appeal filed in February, Murphy-Brown said the judge made several reversible errors, including denying its motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims based on “fear of” future injuries, refusing to apply North Carolina’s three-year statute of limitations and allowing plaintiff lawyers to strip away claims against the actual farm accused of being a nuisance so jurors could focus on a presumably less popular foreign corporation.

 

Judge Britt, using similar courtroom rules, oversaw a second trial last year in which jurors ordered two plaintiffs $130,000 in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages and a third in which the jury awarded six plaintiffs $23.5 million in compensatory damages and $450 million in punitives. Punitive damages in all three were reduced under North Carolina’s punitive-damages cap.

 

A fourth trial was shifted to U.S. District Judge David Faber in West Virginia after...

 

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