A North Carolina jury awarded $50 million to neighbors of a 15,000-hog farm in Eastern North Carolina in a case being closely watched across the country by environmentalists and the hog farm industry.
The verdict, revealed late Thursday after a jury deliberated less than two days, is the first to come in a series of federal lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.
In this case decided in a federal courtroom in Raleigh, 10 neighbors contended that industrial-scale hog operations have known for decades that the open-air sewage pits on their properties were the source of noxious, sickening and overwhelming odors. The stench was so thick, the neighbors argued, that it was impossible to get it out of their clothes.
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A team of lawyers began crafting the legal argument in 2014. They focused on the continued use of "anaerobic lagoons," where hog waste was stored behind the livestock pens, then liquefied and sprayed onto nearby fields.
They argued such a practice presented a public nuisance and went after the pork producers.
Smithfield Foods was bought in 2013 by China's WH Group, the world's largest pork producer. The company has not changed its method of disposal since the 1980s and ’90s.
Attorneys for the neighbors argued that waste treatment methods had evolved and the pork production operations in Eastern North Carolina have not changed their methods because it keeps operational costs lower than in China.
"We are pleased with the verdict. These cases are about North Carolina family property rights and a clean environment," said Mona Lisa Wallace, a Salisbury attorney whose firm teamed with two Texas-based firms to prepare the series of trials covering similar ground. "We are now preparing for the next, which is scheduled for the end of May."
Attorneys for the hog farm operators cautioned against heralding new technology that had not been tested or proven effective in this state.
"We are extremely disappointed by the verdict," Keira Lombardo, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Smithfield Foods, said in a statement, announcing plans to appeal. "These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regula