House passes limited hog farm liability bill

Some of the 3500 hogs on a farm near Richlands in 2003.
Some of the 3500 hogs on a farm near Richlands in 2003.

A proposal to limit the financial payoff from citizen lawsuits against North Carolina’s hog farming operations passed the state House on Monday, but only after lawmakers agreed to exempt lawsuits currently pending.

The passage of House Bill 467 keeps alive 26 lawsuits pending in federal court against Smithfield Foods subsidiary Murphy-Brown. The suits, filed by 541 residents of Eastern North Carolina, allege that hog farmers spraying their fields with liquified swine waste causes offensive odors, swarming flies and other problems.

The bill had initially been written to include the pending lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, but several Republicans said during Monday's debate that interfering with a lawsuit was unconstitutional and would deprive citizens of their legal rights and property rights. The bill, which would now affect only future lawsuits, heads to the state Senate for further debate.

Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a retired farmer from Duplin County who sponsored the bill, said the lawsuits against Murphy-Brown were filed by residents who "are being prostituted for money" by opportunistic lawyers who fly in on Lear jets and troll for clients.

"These allegations are at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies," Dixon said. "When you talk about spraying effluent on peoples' houses and peoples' cars, that does not exist."

The legislature rarely writes bills to affect the outcome of pending lawsuits, and would normally do so only if it is clarifying, and not changing, existing law.

The bill’s defenders said the measure was necessary to protect hog farmers, many of them family-run operations, against financial ruin. They said the legislation provided a reasonable solution to manage nuisance lawsuits against hog farms by limiting the amount of money neighbors could collect for the inconvenience caused by the stench and spraying.

The bill caps financial damages to the loss of rental income over three years, the legal limit on recovering damages, which reduces the potential value of the suits to several thousand dollars in most cases.

Several Republicans warned their colleagues that changing the rules on existing cases is unwise and irresponsible.

"It's not the responsibility of the legislature to take away property rights or immerse itself in an existing lawsuit," said Rep. Hugh Blackwell of Burke County.

Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern said it was inappropriate for lawmakers "to single out a specific court case and try to determine the outcome."

Rep. John Blust of Guilford County said: "We don't need to be rushing in at the last minute and bailing out a defendant."

Rep. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County, who voted for HB 467 in committee last week, voted Monday to exempt pending lawsuits from the bill's legal reach.

The lawsuits are expected to go to trial as early as this summer, and now could reap a substantial jury award. They allege that 89 hog farms spray waste that wafts across property lines and forces neighbors to flee indoors, turn up air conditioners, burn incense or sometimes leave the area until the spraying stops.

Fourteen of the farms are owned by Murphy-Brown, but 75 are owned and operated by independent contractors that supply Murphy-Brown with animals. The lawsuits are filed against Murphy-Brown only, not against local farmers that supply the hog processor.

One of the claims in the pending lawsuits is that Smithfield shift to more expensive but cleaner ways of swine waste disposal. Virginia-based Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world, is owned by a Chinese corporate parent that was listed last year as one of the world’s largest companies on the Fortune Global 500. Smithfield was acquired in 2013 for $4.7 billion by the Chinese conglomerate, WH Group.

Lawmakers voted 59-56 to amend the bill to apply to future lawsuits only, then voted 68-47 in favor of the amended bill.

Mona Lisa Wallace, a lawyer for the 541 residents suing Murphy-Brown, said she was relieved and grateful her firm's lawsuit was spared, but said the bill unfairly puts limits on other property owners who may want to seek legal options in the future.

The bill was supported by the NC Chamber and agricultural organizations.

"Farmers continue to believe that this clarification is appropriate to apply to pending cases as well as future cases," the N.C. Pork Council said in a statement. "Many farmers need this protection from predatory lawyers who wish to use our farms to line their pockets."

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski