A Third Smithfield Lawsuit Verdict Creates Alarm Among Producers

Pigs are seen at a Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, farm in the United States in this image released on April 11, 2017.

On Friday, Aug. 3, the Associated Press reported that a third lawsuit against Smithfield Foods had found the company guilty for “unreasonable nuisances they suffered from odors, flies and rumbling trucks.” A federal jury placed the fine at $473.5 million to six neighbors of pig farms.

According to the AP article, the jury awarded $23.5 million in compensatory damages and $450 million in punitive damages, but because of North Carolina law, the total was reduced to $94 million. This figure is still significant, considering there are 23 more lawsuits to follow.

This article tells about the first Smithfield lawsuit and this follow-up article gave details of the second lawsuit.

It’s hard to say what makes people angry or upset enough to be part of a lawsuit, Farm Journal’s PORK said in this editorial in April. Farming and animal production are businesses: tractors are noisy and livestock produce waste. For displaced urbanites whose backgrounds are far removed from the farm, their perceptions of country life are often unrealistic. And a large group of people can sometimes act very differently than individuals might act on their own.

Far-Reaching Consequences
According to leaders of the National Pork Producers Council, the plaintiffs in these lawsuits don’t realize that farming involves noises and odors.

“Enough is enough,” Howard Hill, an NPPC past president from Iowa said in a news release from NPPC. Hill, who previously worked for a pork operation in North Carolina, said, “It’s time for our elected leaders to step up and stop this madness.”

Hill testified at a meeting in Raleigh, N.C., that included North Carolina congressional lawmakers Sen. Thom Tillis and Rep. David Rouzer, along with U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, USDA Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service Under Secretary Bill Northey, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and ag officials from several other states.

In the news release, Hill noted that the judge in all three cases believes people who have moved to North Carolina’s rural communities can sue farmers for millions of dollars “for doing nothing more than simply farming.”

Jim Heimerl, current NPPC president and a pork producer from Johnstown, Ohio, also testified, with similar sentiments: “Some people in North Carolina and the Texas trial lawyer who brought these nuisance suits seem determined to destroy the hog industry in the state,” Heimerl, said in the NPPC press release. “If they succeed, they’ll put more than 46,000 people out of work and cost the state – the nation’s second largest pork producer – millions of dollars in economic activity.

“This trial-lawyer abuse of our legal system and the threats against family farmers and the safe, nutritious food they produce must stop now!” he added.

No End in Sight
At this point, the industry should likely brace for more bad news with the other 23 lawsuits yet to be heard. The North Carolina legislature has put safeguards in place for future suits. The governor had vetoed the bill, but lawmakers overrode the veto (read the article here).

The Farm Act of 2018 addresses nuisance lawsuits against agricultural operations. It sets a deadline for bringing such suits of one year from an operation’s start and allows punitive damages only against a farm that had a criminal charge or code violation.

That language could create additional risks for hog-farm operators who might want to adopt waste-disposal techniques that don't stink as much or prevent waste from rolling off fields into streams, said Duke University environmental attorney Michelle Nowlin.

"As long as what you're doing is the same as everybody else, it's not a nuisance," said Duke University environmental attorney Michelle Nowlin said. However, she added, it might put producers who adopt new technology at risk:  "If you try to innovate, if you try something new and maybe it fails, you're not protected in the same way..."

“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,” the AP article stated.

Still, any legislation will offer little relief to Smithfield, which is owned by Hong Kong-headquartered WH Group. If all the lawsuits end in a similar manner to the first three, one can’t help but be concerned about the long-term impact on the world’s largest pork producer and its future business.