It’s not only pig farmers concerned with the recent judgements topping half a billion dollars against Smithfield-owned Murphy Brown. National and local government leaders, agriculture policy leaders and individual farmers are all carefully watching how these and other nuisance lawsuits against livestock facilities are progressing.
As the third Smithfield trial concludes and the fourth trial begins, two issues are emerging:
1. Pork Producers Want Gag Order Lifted
Parties, lawyers and potential witnesses remain under a gag order, imposed by Judge Earl Britt, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in July. While the reason is to “not taint future jurors,” the order doesn’t cover other outside interests.
As some pork producers are potential witnesses, they are prohibited from defending their own operations, says NPPC President Jim Heimerl, a pork producer from Ohio.
House Ag Committee Chairman, Sen. Mike Conaway (R-Texas 11th District) told AgriTalk host Chip Flory that many government and agriculture government leaders are also watching the fallout from these lawsuits, concerned that similar nuisance claims could be made against other agricultural organizations.
“This is obviously going the wrong way,” Conaway said. “These lawyers have also gone to Delaware and are stirring up plaintiffs that live around poultry production. If there's a buck involved or buck to be had, there's going to be a lot of folks out there trying to create things where they shouldn't and this is an existential threat to producing livestock in this country.”
Listen to the full AgriTalk interview with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway:
In a roundtable discussion with Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC 7th District) and Sen. Thom Tillus (R-NC) last week, Conaway says many agricultural leaders on the national level are looking at ways to protect farmers and agricultural operators.
Looking beyond state Right to Farm acts, on a national level this issue would not fall under the Ag Committee’s review, Conaway said, but would come under the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Sen. Tillus, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, are both familiar with the issues, Conaway said.
2. Appeals Cannot Begin Until the Judgements are Certified
“Until we could get into an appellate court, we're not sure you know, if this thing this idea would actually stand scrutiny of except somebody other than this one federal judge,” Conaway said.
Will A New Judge Have An Impact?
Thursday, Judge Britt, who managed the first three lawsuits, was temporarily replaced for the fourth trial, AP reports. Court documents don’t indicate the reason for the change, but that it was assigned before a jury announced the third trial's $473 million verdict.
Chief Judge Roger Gregory of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals designated federal Judge David Faber of West Virginia to hear the upcoming trial.
"It is not clear what a change in the judge means for the future cases, but I can speak for hog farmers who will be hopeful that there's a fresh look at some of the rulings that have been made" that may have shaped the outcomes of previous trials, said Andy Curliss, North Carolina Pork Council CEO.
The fourth trial starts Sept. 4 over smells, flies and pests caused by a 7,100-hog farm in Sampson County. It's not clear who will be the judge for the subsequent trial, AP says, but Faber is also due to run the sixth trial starting in late November.