The case against hog producer Murphy-Brown got off to a rocky start shortly after it was filed in Wake County Superior Court in 2013.
Murphy-Brown’s lawyers moved to eliminate two out-of-state law firms, the Speer Law Firm and the Middleton Law Firm, which brought the lawsuits and are considered the nation’s pre-eminent lawyers in hog farm litigation.
The problem: The firms recruited clients in North Carolina without a state law license, signing hundreds of state residents to contracts that stipulated if they withdrew from the cases, they owed $450 an hour for work already performed on their behalf.
Raleigh lawyer Wade Smith, who represented the firms in their bid to litigate in North Carolina, argued that Murphy-Brown was less concerned about ethics and more interested in disqualifying formidable courtroom adversaries. The two out-of-state firms had won large jury verdicts and multimillion-dollar settlements in Missouri against Murphy-Brown’s U.S. corporate parent, Smithfield Foods.
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Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, in court hearings, denounced the out-of-state lawyers’ conduct and said the contracts they signed with North Carolina residents were unlawful and unenforceable. After the contracts were rewritten, however, Stephens allowed Speer and Middleton lawyers to work on the case in North Carolina – but only as long as the attorneys worked with a North Carolina firm, Wallace & Graham.
Less than two months later, Wallace & Graham came back to Judge Stephens and said they could not work with the out-of-state lawyers. At this point, Stephens revoked Speer’s and Middleton’s privilege to practice in his court.
“And frankly, I don’t ever want to see them again or hear from them again while I’m on the bench,” Stephens said in a court hearing.
Speer and Middleton had also planned to pursue the hog litigation in Duplin County. Duplin County Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Parsons, after learning what happened in Wake County, also rejected their request to practice in his court in May 2014.
Wallace & Graham took over the case and refiled the lawsuits in federal court. The Salisbury firm faced a challenge from Murphy-Brown’s lawyers over filing nearly 20 pages of information about Murphy-Brown’s links to the Chinese government.
Wallace & Graham had submitted translations from WH Group’s Chinese website listing WH Group chairman Wan Long’s credentials as member of the Communist Party, senior consultant to the National People’s Congress and a former member of the People’s Liberation Army.
Wallace & Graham alleged that the Chinese Communist government controls WH Group through its financing from the state-controlled Bank of China. Citing WH Group’s publicly-filed financial results, the lawsuits say Murphy-Brown can well afford to implement cleaner waste-management technology to protect North Carolina’s citizens from foul odors and other aggravations.
Murhpy-Brown contended this information was irrelevant to the case and presented only to arouse xenophobic emotions among jurors.
U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt agreed, striking the information from the case file.
According to court records, WH Group posted revenue of $21.53 billion last year, with an operating profit of $1.78 billion.