North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill on Monday that severely limited how and when neighbors of hog farms can sue the agricultural business next door with nuisance claims.
The action came 11 days after approval of the North Carolina Farm Act, or Senate Bill 711, which sparked heated debate in the General Assembly.
It also came on a day when opponents of the bill and farmers both rallied in Raleigh.
The chief sponsor of the bill said he would ask fellow lawmakers to quickly override Cooper's veto and pass the changes into law.
Cooper stated in his reasons for vetoing the bill that "while agriculture is vital to North Carolina’s economy," so are “property rights” that “are vital to people’s homes and other businesses.”
“North Carolina’s nuisance laws can help allow generations of families to enjoy their homes and land without fear for their health and safety,” the Democratic governor said in his statement. “Those same laws stopped the Tennessee Valley Authority from pumping air pollution into our mountains. Our laws must balance the needs of businesses versus property rights. Giving one industry special treatment at the expense of its neighbors is unfair.”
Lawmakers pushing for the curbs on nuisance suits were upset by a jury’s decision in federal court in April to award $50 million to 10 neighbors of a hog farm operated by Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods.
That verdict was the first in a series of nuisance suits brought against the pork producer.
North Carolina law already limits how much hog farm neighbors can get in damages if victorious at trial. A little more than a week after that landmark verdict in April, the federal judge who presided over the trial reduced the damage sentence from more than $50 million to $3.25 million to comply with a 1995 state law.
But Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and farmer, and other bill sponsors argued that future verdicts such as the one in the case brought by neighbors of the Duplin County hog farm could wreak havoc on the pork industry in a state that has 9 million hogs on nearly 2,300 hog farm operations.
The lawsuits filed by some 500 residents were borne out of a legal argument that a team of lawyers began crafting in 2014. They focused on the pork industry giant's continued use of "anaerobic lagoons" in which hog waste is stored behind livestock pens, then liquefied and sprayed onto nearby fields.
The neighbors have complained about a heavy stench, swarms of flies and noisy trucks that they contend make it difficult for them to enjoy the use of their property.
Attorneys for the neighbors contend that what once were small family farms have been expanded into industrialized agricultural facilities that have not adapted to more modern waste disposal methods.
Advocates for pork producers describe them as small family farms that will be run out of business if nuisance lawsuits become a trend.
"It’s a sad day when the Governor of North Carolina chooses to stand up for out-of-state trial lawyers over our family farmers, and this veto has left our rural communities wondering where the Roy Cooper who grew up in rural Nash County has gone.” Jackson said in a statement. “I will urge the Senate to promptly override this misguided veto and restore meaning to the right to farm in N.C.”
Hilton Monroe of Rose Hill was among the farmers who gathered near the Legislative Building on Monday.
"I'm here because I'm a hog producer myself and I hate to see pork prices go up higher in the store by people trying to get a fistful of dollars," Monroe said. "We need to remain the same and do what the state asked us to do as hog farmers."
Rep. Billy Richardson, a Fayetteville Democrat and attorney, and Rep. John Blust, a Guilford County Republican and attorney, gave impassioned speeches, urging their fellow lawmakers not to put any more limits on the hog farm neighbors.
They said the curbs went against bedrock principles on which this country was built such as the “Equal Justice Under Law” phrase engraved on the wall of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite their pleas to reverse course, the bill passed both the House and Senate.
Under the bill, a nuisance lawsuit can't be filed unless it's done within a year of the establishment of the agriculture or forestry operation on which the complaint is focused or within a year of "fundamental change." "Fundamental change" does not include changes in ownership, technology, product or size of the operation.
The bill further limits when punitive damages can be awarded. Unless a farm operator has a criminal conviction or has received a regulatory notice of violation that state farm laws were broken, such damages won't be allowed.
The farmers, though, were not the target of the nuisance suits.
The neighbors went after Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which describes itself as a "$15 billion global food company and the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer.” It is owned by WH Group, which has headquarters in Hong Kong and generated $22 billion in revenues last year.
Staff writer Charlotte Harris contributed to this report.