What Will the Third Smithfield Trial Bring?

Testimony begins in the third of a series of lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC. ( PORK )

Testimony began Wednesday in the third of a series of lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC, owned by Smithfield Foods. This lawsuit comes from Pender County, N.C., which ranked ninth in the state for hog inventories, as of Dec. 1, 2016.

Similar to the first two cases, plaintiffs allege improper manure handling, increasing smell, as well as disturbances from semi-trucks on the road, have harmed residential property values and their quality of life.

Smithfield’s legal team, led by James Neale, says neighbors are overstating the smell and the impact expensive new manure technologies would have.  In his opening arguments, he says they plan to bring other neighbors not listed in the case in rebuttal about the smell and quality of life.

This case deals only with a few farms between 2011 and 2018, he told jurors. Lagoons and spray fields are allowed by state regulations that get renewed every five years, and those methods are not on trial, he said, according to reports by WRAL.com.

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Producers were disappointed in the initial $51 million judgement in the first trial in April. That amount was reduced to $3.25 million due to North Carolina state law that limits punitive damages, but it still sent an alarming message to hog and other livestock operations in the state.

In the second trial, producers were again frustrated with the inability for jurors to visit the farm in question. After three days of deliberation, the jury awarded $25 million to the plaintiffs. 

Several meetings by state agriculture groups and legislatures have sparked discussion as the trials continued. Last month, state legislatures overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto on a farm bill that restricted who could file nuisance claims against large livestock operations. This ruling has no impact on the current lawsuits however.

“Overriding this veto and correcting Gov. Cooper’s unwise decision sends the clear message to our family farmers and rural communities that they have a voice in the legislature and that this General Assembly intends to give them the respect they deserve,” said GOP Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County, after the vote. (Click here for details on the new law.)

The lawsuits come at a time U.S. pork producers are already facing difficult situations, reports JoAnn Alumbaugh.

“American hog farmers already face serious headwinds, including export market uncertainty caused by ongoing trade disputes,” said Jim Heimerl, in a statement from the National Pork Producers Council in June. “We can’t allow trial-lawyer abuse of our legal system to continue as it threatens the livelihood of livestock farming families, undermines the rural economy and unnecessarily increases food prices for consumers.”