Odor, flies and noise. Hog farming goes on trial again with high-stakes federal lawsuit.

Lawsuits pit hog farms against their neighbors

Three public nuisance lawsuits filed against Smithfield Foods and Murphy-Brown hog farm operations have so far been decided, with damages in excess of $500 million awarded to plaintiffs.
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Three public nuisance lawsuits filed against Smithfield Foods and Murphy-Brown hog farm operations have so far been decided, with damages in excess of $500 million awarded to plaintiffs.

A high-stakes, month-long trial against the world’s largest pork producer began Wednesday in Raleigh, asking jurors to weigh how bad hog waste can smell and whether the nuisance of being its neighbor deserves an award that could potentially run into the millions.

The federal case against Murphy-Brown centers around Sholar Farm in rural Sampson County, 80 miles south of Raleigh, where eight plaintiffs living around dead-end Moon Johnson Road seek unspecified damages for years of odor, truck noise and flies.

Some of those plaintiffs can trace roots on that land back a century, said their lead attorney Michael Kaeske of Dallas, who described an idyllic, family-based lifestyle interrupted by Sholar’s arrival in the mid-1980s.

“That all ended when (farming magnate) Wendell Murphy decided the end of this dead-end road was a suitable location for his hogs,” Kaeske said, adding Sholar Farm has 6,000 hogs and 10 million gallons of waste in its lagoons.

“That’s enough to fill 45 water towers,” he said.

Over an hour-long opening statement, Kaeske argued the plaintiffs cannot enjoy their property enough to host a family barbecue, let kids play outside or tend a garden because unpredictable smells chase them inside.

One of the plaintiffs, decorated Iraq War veteran William Murphy, built a screen porch to guard against flies, he said. But it goes unused because of the smell.

Kaeske noted North Carolina’s 1997 moratorium on new hog lagoons — the grandfathered Sholar Farm uses two without covering — and several new technologies he said it declines to add due to high costs. Jurors saw pictures of hogs packed shoulder-to-shoulder on concrete floors, covered, Kaeske said, in their own waste.

“Hogs are eating, urinating, defecating machines,” Kaeske said. “That’s all they do all day long. ... This mess is the result.”

In August, a federal jury awarded $470 million to neighbors of a Pender County farm run by Murphy-Brown, an award that was reduced due to a state cap on punitive damages.

The new trial, expected to last well into December, is the fourth such case against Murphy-Brown this year — a match-up the left-leaning NC Policy Watch forecast as a “Texas duel.”

The pork giant’s parent company Smithfield Foods is also represented by a Dallas attorney: Robert Thackston, who characterized Kaeske’s David-and-Goliath argument as “fiction.”

“Everybody likes a good, entertaining story,” Thackston said. “The big, powerful bad guy coming and crushing the little guy, that’s been the staple of stories for years. But it’s fiction.”

He noted that Sampson County includes 100 square miles more than Wake County, and that its population runs only to 63,000 compared to Wake’s 1 million. Numerous other hog and poultry farms dot the area, he noted, along with a composting operation that keeps manure in large piles.

“That area is going to smell like the country,” Thackston said.

The industry is heavily regulated and subject to permits, Thackston said, though the plaintiffs’ attorney said inspections amount to only an hour a year. Thackston listed 15 improvements at Sholar Farm, including a mortality freezer for dead hogs and expanded and more distant fields for spraying hog waste.

“They don’t want to be a bad neighbor,” Thackston said.

Many of the plaintiffs live 2,000 or 3,000 feet from Sholar Farm’s lagoons, which he said would nearly span the distance from Raleigh’s federal courthouse to its convention center.

He noted many of the plaintiffs built their houses well after Sholar Farms arrived, adding that an unidentified neighbor built an in-ground swimming pool only 1,000 feet away.

Nobody in this case has complained of any injury, Thackston said, but the kind of damages being sought are for “people who need health care for the rest of their life.”

Testimony continues Thursday.

Video: Farmer Jeff Spedding talks about managing the lagoons on his hog farm near Magnolia, N.C. on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Spedding uses the natural organic fertilizer from the lagoons on his rotating crops of corn, wheat and soybeans.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08