In this file:
· Nebraska ‘ag nuisance’ bill advances
… Laura Field, vice president of legislature affairs with Nebraska Cattlemen, says current law does not offer enough protection to farmers who want to expand their operations… Opponents say the legislation is being driven by large corporate farming interests. Field says that’s not the case….
· Big Ag Is Pushing Laws To Restrict Neighbors' Ability To Sue Farms
… The push is a response to the millions of dollars awarded so far to five groups of farm neighbors in North Carolina who sued a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the biggest pork company in the country, over air pollution -- including the manure particles and intense odors put out by large hog operations...
Nebraska ‘ag nuisance’ bill advances
By Ken Anderson, Brownfield
April 11, 2019
The Nebraska legislature has given first-round approval to LB 227, a bill that would expand legal protections offered under the state’s existing “Right to Farm” law.
Laura Field, vice president of legislature affairs with Nebraska Cattlemen, says current law does not offer enough protection to farmers who want to expand their operations.
“If you wanted to add a few head of livestock, or if you were a row crop farmer and wanted to put a hog barn on the corner of one of your pieces of property to bring back a son or daughter, our laws really don’t protect that,” Field says. “If you make any of those changes, you could open yourself up to be subjected to a nuisance lawsuit.”
Opponents say the legislation is being driven by large corporate farming interests. Field says that’s not the case.
“We’ve heard from members who have tried to go from 300 head to a thousand and have run up against problems with those issues,” she says. “It’s not about Big Agriculture for sure. It’s about...
more, including audio [6:25 min.]
Big Ag Is Pushing Laws To Restrict Neighbors' Ability To Sue Farms
Leah Douglas, NPR
April 12, 2019
This story comes to us from the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit investigative news organization, where Leah Douglas is an associate editor and staff writer. A version of the story first appeared in FERN's Ag Insider.
Every state has a "right-to-farm" law on the books to protect farmers from being sued by their neighbors for the routine smells and noise created by farming operations. But this year, the agriculture industry has been pushing in several states to amend those laws so that they will effectively prevent neighbors from suing farms at all — even massive industrial livestock operations.
The push is a response to the millions of dollars awarded so far to five groups of farm neighbors in North Carolina who sued a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the biggest pork company in the country, over air pollution -- including the manure particles and intense odors put out by large hog operations. The first of 26 lawsuits against the company, representing nearly 500 plaintiffs, was heard in 2017.
In the past several months, legislators in Utah, Nebraska, Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Oklahoma have proposed, and in some cases passed, legislation that they say will protect farmers against similar lawsuits. The legislation varies, but several proposals reduce the potential damages that plaintiffs could win in such a suit or limit the distance from the farm a neighbor must live in order to bring a suit. Some do both.
Critics say that these changes to existing right-to-farm laws aren't necessary to protect farmers. "Our law is already extremely strong [in Georgia]. They're trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," says April Lipscomb, a staff attorney with the Atlanta office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Nuisance lawsuits have not been prevalent in the state."
The agriculture industry is framing these bills as a necessary response to the threat farmers face from nuisance lawsuits, such as those brought in North Carolina, where since last spring, juries in five cases have awarded plaintiffs in Duplin, Bladen, Pender, and Sampson counties more than $574 million in their lawsuits against pork company Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield. The plaintiffs alleged that the company's mismanagement of hog waste degraded their quality of life and reduced their property values. (The plaintiffs' awards have been reduced to comply with a North Carolina law capping punitive damages.)
Farm lobby groups say they must fend off similar outcomes in other states. And state farm bureaus and industry lobby groups have been clear that the North Carolina lawsuits are the impetus behind the expanded right-to-farm proposals.
For instance, the Utah Farm Bureau wrote in a blog post that the state's right-to-farm law should be tightened given that "in recent years, some have quickly turned to lawsuits to settle realities of production agriculture." The Georgia Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Farm Bureau also wrote in support of the right-to-farm bills in those states and linked their proposals to the successful North Carolina lawsuits.
And in at least three states, right-to-farm expansions have already passed. West Virginia's governor signed that state's right-to-farm bill into law on March 27. The state senator who sponsored the legislation was clear that nuisance lawsuits "in other states" were what motivated him to bring the bill.
Oklahoma's governor signed that state's right-to-farm expansion into law on April 1. The bill's sponsor explicitly linked the bill to the North Carolina verdicts. Oklahomans defeated a ballot initiative to expand the state's right-to-farm law in 2016.
North Carolina also changed its law soon after the first cases against Smithfield went to a jury. In 2017 and 2018, the legislature twice overrode the governor's veto to pass laws that capped the damages plaintiffs can receive from a nuisance suit and restricted the conditions in which a plaintiff can bring such a suit.
Those two laws fit the profile of right-to-farm bills that have been proposed in other states. In West Virginia, the new right-to-farm law restricts who can bring a nuisance suit to residents living within a half-mile of the farm — despite the fact that the effects of air and water pollution from large-scale farms are evident in a much wider radius. Utah's bill similarly restricts potential plaintiffs to a half-mile radius, while Georgia's bill limits them to a five-mile radius.
And some of the bills cap plaintiffs' potential damages as well. The West Virginia law prohibits punitive damages altogether, restricting damages to compensation for diminished property value. This change is yet another callback to the North Carolina verdicts: The major damages awarded to the plaintiffs in the North Carolina cases were punitive.
Restricting or eliminating punitive damages can make it more difficult for plaintiffs to bring nuisance lawsuits, given that damages awarded may not even cover their legal fees. In one North Carolina verdict, compensatory damages awarded to plaintiffs totaled less than $13,000 per plaintiff. Critics say that eliminating punitive damages is a particular concern in the case of farm nuisance lawsuits, given that those affected by the environmental fallout from large-scale animal farming are disproportionately low-income people of color.
The outcome of North Carolina's changes to its right-to-farm law will be to "deprive affected neighbors of a meaningful legal recourse" when faced with the odors and pollution associated with large-scale animal farming, says Will Hendrick, a staff attorney at the Waterkeeper Alliance who is based in North Carolina...