RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A federal jury decided Friday that the world's largest pork producer should pay $473.5 million to neighbors of three North Carolina industrial-scale hog farms for unreasonable nuisances they suffered from odors, flies and rumbling trucks
The jury found that Smithfield Foods owes compensation to six neighbors who complained in their lawsuit that the company failed to stop "the obnoxious, recurrent odors and other causes of nuisance" resulting from the hog operations.
Industry group the North Carolina Pork Council decried the jury's decision in a statement warning that it could lead to more lawsuits across the country.
"This verdict will spread from eastern North Carolina to all corners of American agriculture," the group said, calling for an appeal of the decision they described as unfair and unjust.
The jury awarded $23.5 million in compensatory damages and $450 million in punitive damages, which will be reduced to a total of $94 million under limits in state law.
Juries in those two previous cases against Smithfield awarded damages of about $75 million intended to punish Smithfield, though those amounts also were required to be cut.
North Carolina legislators reacted by adopting new barriers against nuisance lawsuits that all but eliminate the ability of neighbors to sue Smithfield Foods or any other agribusiness.
U.S. Sen Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. David Rouzer suggested they might seek national legislation after hearing Friday from agribusiness executives and agriculture officials from North Carolina, Georgia, Delaware and Texas in Raleigh.
"Today's nuisance lawsuits that are destroying livelihoods and communities in North Carolina are the tip of the iceberg for what is to come absent a well-informed public and good public policy," Rouzer said in a prepared statement Thursday. "This is a very slippery slope that threatens the very existence of every form of agriculture nationwide."
The Pender County, North Carolina, farms at the center of the lawsuit held thousands of hogs owned by a Smithfield Foods subsidiary. Smithfield was sued because plaintiffs' lawyers said the company used strict contracts to dictate how farmers raised Smithfield's animals.
Smithfield is owned by Hong Kong-headquartered WH Group.
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