People who live near industrial pig facilities, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are bombarded with noxious smells, polluted air and water and noise, to say nothing of their plummeting property values. The industries running these facilities often get off scot-free, destroying families’ lives and finances while padding their own pockets.
In what's being described as a historic case, however, Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, has finally been taken to task — and they got their just deserts. In 2014, more than 500 North Carolina residents brought suit against the company, saying the operations and manure lagoons were harming their health and lowering property values. The lawsuit is the first of 26 nuisance lawsuits filed against Murphy Brown.
It involves 10 plaintiffs who live near the Kinlaw hog farm, a 14,000-animal facility, in Bladen County. The families owned their properties prior to the farm moving into town, and when operations started in 1995, it was all downhill from there.
WRAL news reported, "[Plaintiffs] say they can no longer use their property as they used to because of the stench from the hog waste lagoons and dead animals. They contend they're also plagued by flies and pests attracted to the farm … and that hog waste even drifts into their homes when it's sprayed onto nearby fields."1
Pork Giant Fined More Than $50 Million in Nuisance Lawsuit
In April 2018, a federal jury ruled in favor of area residents, awarding the plaintiffs a collective $750,000 in compensation plus another $50 million in damages. Some CAFOs treat animal feces in open-air, often unlined lagoons and dispose of the waste by spraying it onto nearby fields. The creation of new CAFO lagoons and the spray systems were banned in 2007, but older farms were allowed to continue their use.
The liquefied waste often leaches into groundwater and wells, poisoning drinking water. When it's sprayed onto fields, it often runs off into waterways, where the excess nutrients lead to algae overgrowth that depletes the water of oxygen and kills fish and other marine life. According to one of the attorneys on the case, Michael Kaeske, bacteria from swine digestive systems was found coating the exterior surfaces of all 10 of the plaintiffs’ homes.2
Further, while Smithfield has taken steps to curb some of the impact CAFOs have on their neighbors in other states, such as covering manure pits, this isn’t the case in North Carolina, where the “lagoons” remain uncovered and the operation continues to spray urine and feces near the neighboring homes.
Wake Forest University law professor Sidney Shapiro explained in a news release that the jurors concluded "the defendant owed them [plaintiffs] a standard of care in terms of trying to minimize the odors and other undesirable fallout from their processes … Apparently the jury decided they [Smithfield] knew about and disregarded all this fallout even though they could do something positive to reduce it."3
Why Plaintiffs May Actually Receive Little Compensation
The favorable verdict gives hope for the many other communities rallying against the damages caused by industrial agriculture, particularly since Smithfield and other meat producers wield incredible lobbying power, making nuisance lawsuits historically difficult to win. Since the year 2000 alone, the North Carolina Pork Council has donated $90,000 to legislative candidates, according to New Food Economy, and Smithfield has already announced plans to appeal the jury's decision.4
Smithfield senior vice president of corporate affairs, Keira Lombardo, stated, “The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina's entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians,"5 but CAFOs are known to destroy communities, polluting waterways, creating toxic air pollution and sickening area residents. Property values plummet when CAFOs are built, as does the local economy.
While CAFOs often tout increased tax revenue when trying to venture into new regions, the reality is that they drain resources from the community, while purchasing supplies from outside the area and paying workers low wages, thus providing little to no economic stimulation and, in return, leaving devastating environmental damage.6 However, while the payout to plaintiffs seems large, North Carolina law reportedly limits punitive damages to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages.
"What this means," New Food Economy reported, "is that, even though this North Carolina jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 million in compensatory damages, each individual is likely only to receive $225,000 (or triple the value of the $75,000 in compensatory damages)."7
What's more, in 2017, North Carolina legislators passed a law setting a cap on how much people can receive from public nuisance lawsuits. The bill, which was drafted by politicians who have received donations from pork producers, was vetoed by North Carolina's governor but the veto was later overruled by the Senate.
The new law will not apply to lawsuits already in progress but will significantly limit those going forward. WRAL reported, "Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, a recipient of campaign contributions from hog farmers, pushed to make the law retroactive, which would have limited damages in these cases as well. But that part of the proposal was voted down when other lawmakers questioned its constitutionality."8