Bladen County and the surrounding areas in North Carolina will have a great number of residents focusing in on Virginia tomorrow, however it will not be about the 2nd Amendment rally. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, located at 1100 E. Main Street in Richmond, Virginia, has the hog industry lawsuits on the docket tomorrow, Friday, January 31, 2020.
The first case to be heard in courtroom 414-D at the Fourth Circuit should be the case involving local hog farmer, William (Billy) Kinlaw of Dublin. It has been over a year since appeals in the hog industry lawsuits have been filed with the Court of Appeals.
In the case involving Kinlaw Farms held in April 2018, the jury unanimously agreed that Murphy-Brown, which owned the hogs at the farms in Bladen County, “substantially and unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of their property,” according to the verdict sheet. The jury awarded each of the plaintiffs $75,000 on those grounds. In addition the jury also awarded punitive damages in the amount of $5 million for each plaintiff.
“We are pleased with the verdict,” said Mona Lisa Wallace of Wallace and Graham law firm in Salisbury, in a prepared statement after the first trial. The firm represented the plaintiffs, and Michael Kaeske, an attorney from Texas argued the case. “These cases are about North Carolina family property rights and a clean environment,” Wallace’s statement added.
Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods has had 26 nuisance lawsuits filed against them in federal court. To date all five of the cases that have gone to trial in Federal District Court held in Wake County, North Carolina have ended with historic payouts for the plaintiffs. The gross damages awarded to the plaintiffs in the five cases totaled $550.5 million. Because of a state cap on punitive awards, the net payout is $97.2 million.
After the Kinlaw Farms trial Smithfield released a statement noting reasons for an appeal, “We believe the outcome would have been different if the court had allowed the jury to (1) visit the plaintiffs’ properties and the Kinlaw farm and (2) hear additional vital evidence, especially the results of our expert’s odor-monitoring tests.”
Smithfield hasn’t paid these damages, pending the company’s appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“These lawsuits are an abuse of our legal system, one that bypasses decisions made by lawmakers and regulators,” said Smithfield spokeswoman, Keira Lombardo, in a prior statement. “As with the first three trials, the negative result is due in large measure to rulings by the court that our attorneys believe are incorrect. These errors skewed the evidence presented in favor of plaintiffs and prejudiced our ability to defend the case, our company, our industry, family farmers and all agriculture.”
View a map of the North Carolina farms listed in the lawsuits, click here.
According to court documents, as many as 500 residents of North Carolina have filed lawsuits seeking compensation for such ailments as nausea, odor, truck noise, insects and headaches they blame on the neighboring hog farms.
Another issue Murphy-Brown faces is their insurance companies have refused to pay Murphy-Brown’s claims. At least 10 of the insurance companies paid by Murphy-Brown argue in part that the policies don’t cover damages related to hog waste because of a “pollution exclusion clause.”
Tomorrow all eyes may be focused on Richmond, VA. The hog and pork processing industry is essential to the economic stability in Bladen County and North Carolina. The industry generates more than $10 billion dollars in economic output for the state, according to a recent study done at North Carolina State University.
The 2019 report by Kelly Zering shows the pork production and processing directly contributes $2.54 billion and 7,500 jobs in Bladen County alone. In North Carolina the report shows there is $5.9 billion dollars in sales and the pork industry provides over 19,298 jobs.
Related statements articles and videos:
Statement from the NC Pork Council on the appeals to be heard in the 4th District Court on Jan. 31, 2020.
The statement read as follows:
All of agriculture in North Carolina is rightly alarmed by what transpired in the unfair trials brought against our farms. Make no mistake: These cases are part of ongoing attacks by trial lawyers who threaten our state’s rural economy. And these cases, and related efforts, are being advanced by groups with stated agendas that seek to put farmers out of business.
But since the 1970s, legislators in our fast-growing state have sought to ensure farming can continue, passing laws to provide certainty from the fears of these types of legal attacks. At the same time, state leaders have ensured environmental protections are in place as well. Hog farmers in North Carolina with more than 250 pigs must be permitted by the state. Once permitted, they are then highly regulated, with requirements for approved management plans, continuing education for farmers, continuous on-farm inspections and serious penalties for bad actors.
But one trial judge, Earl Britt, has upended that regulatory and policy framework with multiple erroneous decisions – judicial decisions that fostered several runaway monetary awards, including excessive and unwarranted punitive damages. Britt’s decisions are in stark contrast to the rulings of a substitute judge who presided over one of the cases and rightly ruled there is no basis for punitive measures. Notably, some juries in these cases deadlocked, then reached compromise verdicts for very low amounts – as low as $100.
This uncertainty from the courts is harmful to any type of business – and certainly to our farms, which provide safe, nutritious and affordable food. Our farmers care for their communities and the environment and take pride in the hard work of producing beloved pork products for all.
Across the state, farmers in all types of agriculture are now looking to the Fourth Circuit judges to correct the mistakes made by Britt, to ensure these unfair outcomes do not stand, and to provide farmers with the certainty and legal guidance that will ensure these attacks on agriculture will come to an end.