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Court Upholds Verdict for Hog Farm Neighbors, Smithfield Settles Lawsuits

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By Charlotte Smith

Thursday, November 19, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a 2018 jury verdict finding liable a Smithfield Foods subsidiary, Murphy-Brown LLC, for compensatory and punitive damages. The case involved a Bladen County hog farm.

Kinlaw Farms, located in White Oak, NC, began in the 1990s when local farmer Billy Kinlaw started a hog operation permitted to house more than 14,000 animals. A contract stated Murphy-Brown would own the pigs. In the agreement, Kinlaw Farms would be responsible for raising the animals.

In 2018, Kinlaw Farms’ neighbors filed a nuisance lawsuit against Murphy-Brown LLC, claiming the hogs raised at the farm caused years of suffering due to the intense smells. Additionally, the plaintiffs claimed Smithfield Foods had not spent money over the years on research and technology to address the nuisance issues.

The Federal judges ruled the jurors in the 2018 case unfairly awarded the multimillion-dollar compensation verdict due to Smithfield Food’s financial standings. The Court explained the evidence about Smithfield’s financial status should have been limited in the Murphy Brown case. The Federal judges ruled the compensation of the lawsuit must be reconsidered.

While the company will not disclose the financial terms of the damages, Smithfield Foods Chief Administrative Officer Keira Lombardo stated about the nuisance lawsuits, “We have resolved these cases through a settlement that will take into account the divided decision of the court.”

The Court addressed each of the issues from the case in a written statement. Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee explained in a statement, he would have given Murphy-Brown a new trial.

Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson explained his own opinion, saying poor conditions at industrial hog operations contribute to poor conditions for humans living nearby.

Regarding punitive damages, the Court recognized that the plaintiffs “provided evidence of [Murphy-Brown’s] deliberate corporate policies and evidence that [Murphy-Brown] knew these policies had associated harms.”

There was “abundant evidence supporting [Murphy-Brown’s] conscious disregard of the conditions at Kinlaw Farms.” And Murphy-Brown’s “leadership persisted in mandating the culpable practices and participated in political efforts aimed at minimizing regulation of harms known to be associated with [Murphy-Brown’s] chosen farming efforts.”

In his concurrence, Judge Wilkinson discussed how the hog farming industry is vital but required “responsible stewardship” to “account for [the] full impact on all stakeholders.”

“Stakeholders do not just include consumers, suppliers, and employees; they include neighbors of hog facilities, children who go to school nearby, medical patients who rely on antibiotics, wildlife and water sports enthusiasts, and many more.”

Lead appellate counsel, Tillman J. Breckenridge of Breckenridge PLLC stated that the decision “vindicates the hard work of the trial team, as the Court rebuked Smithfield and Murphy- Brown’s practices.”

Mona Lisa Wallace added that “we are thrilled at the positive outcome for our clients and the environment.”

Lead trial lawyer, Mike Kaeske added: “I’m honored to have represented the most worthy group of clients of my career, and I’m grateful that the Court has so fully recognized the truth of their struggle.”

In 2018 and 2019 there were five trials held at the U.S. District Court in Raleigh regarding hog farm nuisance cases. In those trials, juries awarded 36 plaintiffs almost $550 million, which was reduced by the courts to $98 million because a North Carolina law limited punitive damages.

There is no information available about the settlements reached in the any of the hog nuisance trials. The plaintiff’s attorneys did not comment on any settlements.