Jury finds in favor of NC neighbors in fourth hog-waste trial

A federal court jury on Wednesday ruled in favor of eight Sampson County neighbors who sued the world’s largest pork producer for bringing foul odors and excessive noise to their rural community.

The plaintiffs were each awarded between $100 and $75,000 to compensate them for harm caused by living near a hog farm. Following Wednesday morning’s verdict the jury began hearing testimony in the punitive damages phase of the trial on Wednesday afternoon. The jury is likely to decide later this week on the amount of punitive damages, if any.

Based on the three previous hog nuisance trials, all of which the company also lost, punitive damages could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Kaeske of Dallas kicked off the second stage of the trial Wednesday by telling the jury that punitive damages are a way to force large corporations to change the way they do business.

He said defendant Murphy-Brown had ample warning over more than 20 years that its hog waste operations posed environmental concerns, which were documented by newspaper articles, scientific studies and internal records. The industry failed to make changes that would be less offensive, such as covering waste lagoons, treating waste water or eliminating aerial spraying. Meanwhile, Kaeske argued, the corporate parent Smithfield Foods made billions of dollars in revenue, he said.

“This is the part where we can get the defendant to change,” Kaeske told jurors.

Murphy-Brown attorney James Neale of Richmond, Va., said the plaintiffs’ contentions about the hog industry have nothing to do with the specific farm that is the subject of the trial. He listed improvements the company has made over the years to address concerns.

Punitive damages, Neale said, are reserved for the worst corporate offenders. The allegations in this trial fall short of that standard, he said. Citing state law, Neale said punitive damages require clear and convincing evidence of personal ill will or conscious and intentional disregard of the rights and safety of others.

“This is a fine company that’s trying to do better every single day,” he said.

The jury of eight women and two men began deliberating on Friday and continued Tuesday, indicating it was making progress. But one hour into Wednesday’s deliberations, jurors sent a note to Judge David Farber saying it was unable to reach a decision because “a few jurors were unwilling to compromise.” Faber brought the jury into the courtroom, where jurors confirmed that there was no prospect of a unanimous verdict.

But the judge told them to resume deliberations anyway, and one hour later they announced they had reached a verdict.

The 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.

The trial began Nov. 14 in Raleigh, asking jurors to weigh how bad hog waste can smell and whether the nuisance of being its neighbor deserves a monetary award.

Sholar Farm has 6,000 hogs and 10 million gallons of waste in its lagoons, Kaeske said at the start of the trial last. Kaeske argued the plaintiffs cannot enjoy their property enough to host a family barbecue, let kids play outside or tend a garden.

This latest trial is the fourth such case against Murphy-Brown.

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. Under the cap, punitive damages can’t exceed three times compensatory damages or $250,000.

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.