A state Senate committee approved a proposal to protect hog farms against citizen lawsuits filed over odors, flies, buzzards and other nuisances caused by large-scale hog farming operators.
The state House passed a similar bill two weeks ago, but only after lawmakers agreed to drop a controversial provision that would have extended the legal protections to hog producer Murphy-Brown in 26 federal lawsuits filed in 2014 and now awaiting trial. The Senate version of the legislation was likewise written not to interfere with the federal lawsuits now pending against Murphy-Brown, North Carolina’s largest hog producer.
If the proposal becomes law, it would limit the amount of money neighbors can collect from hog producers in future court cases.
The bill’s supporters said limiting such lawsuits is necessary to protect the state’s hog industry against predatory lawyers who have their sights set on the state’s farming industry.
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“Without the livestock industry in Eastern North Carolina, there would be tumbleweeds growing in the streets,” said Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer who represents Duplin, Sampson and Johnston counties. “I don’t care how big and strong you are, if you don’t have the right protections in place, you will not survive.”
Concerns about the state’s large-scale hog farming operations go back more than two decades, and resulted in a 1997 moratorium on new hog farms that treat hog waste in open-air lagoons and spray the liquid waste as fertilizer.
Under the House and Senate bills, a person suing a hog farm operation could be compensated only for any reduction in rental income caused by the smells and gases emanating from hog farms. In the Murphy-Brown lawsuits those suing can be compensated more broadly for a general decline in their quality of life, based on a jury’s estimate of the damage.
The federal cases against Murphy-Brown involve about 500 residents, mostly African-Americans, who say they can’t spend time outside and are embarrassed to invite friends over because of the stench.
The legislation passed the Senate Agriculture Committee in a 10-6 vote Monday, with some expressing concern that the bill would deprive residents of legal remedies for hardships experienced as a result of living near hog farming operations.
“I’m getting calls from all over my constituency saying their rights are being abridged,” said Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Rocky Mount who represents portions of five counties in Eastern North Carolina.
After the vote, Mona Lisa Wallace, a lawyer representing those suing Murphy-Brown in federal court, said the legislation deprives citizens of the right to use and enjoy their private property. She also said that under the legislation, someone living in a large house would be entitled to be compensated more generously than a family of six living in a modest dwelling, because the compensation would be pegged to property value devaluation, irrespective of the degree of nuisance the residents experienced.
Wallace also said North Carolina caps punitive damages at three times the amount of compensatory damages, and any law that limits compensatory damages would therefore limit punitive damages.