By Charlotte Smith
The fourth hog farm nuisance lawsuit started the second week in November and may last until December. Some spectators say there may be some rays of hope during the holiday season for the hog farmers and the pork industry.
There are 26 lawsuits aimed at the North Carolina pork business. The four cases heard so far involving the pork industry have been held in the federal courthouse in Raleigh. The first three hog trials at the Federal District Court for the Eastern Division in Wake County were resided over by Judge Earl Britt. All three lawsuits landed historic payouts awarding the plaintiff multimillions of dollars for their nuisance claims.
The defendants in the first three cases made claims of unfair treatment during each of the lawsuits. The first three cases are awaiting appeal and have gone to mediation. The justice system replaced Judge Britt for the next two hog industry lawsuits. Judge David Faber of West Virginia is on the bench now hearing the nuisance claims.
Judge Faber was formal and held a no nonsense attitude during the opening arguments on Wednesday, November 14. The current case against Murphy-Brown, LLC a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods has Sholar Farm in Sampson County under scrutiny. The farm is about 80 miles south of Raleigh.
In the Sholar Farm case, eight plaintiffs, country neighbors living around the hog farm, are asking for unspecified damages due to years of nuisances due to odor, truck noise and flies.
The same Texas lawyer from the first three lawsuits, Michael Kaeske, is leading the plaintiffs’ proceedings again, but was not allowed to use some of the same tactics as he was in the first three trials.
Kaeske, who referred to the defendants numerous times as foreigners with major profits during the first trials was not allowed to use those words during the opening arguments. Kaeske trying to build rapport with the new presiding judge asked if he could dress in more casual attire when meeting with the judge if the court was not in order as he did with Judge Britt. Judge Faber said no to the casual attire request.
The defense added a new attorney to their team for the fourth trial. Robert Thackston a lawyer from Dallas, Texas lead the opening arguments for the defense team with new research and disputes to contradict the plaintiff’s reasoning of the trial.
The jury is made up of two men and ten women. Thackston explained the distance from the Sholar Farm to the neighbors’ homes in city blocks and football field terms to the Wake County jury.
He noted most of the plaintiffs live anywhere from 2,000 to over 5,000 feet away from the lagoons, spray fields and hog houses owned by Sholar Farm. Thackston explained the distance could be compared to multiple city blocks or football fields.
While the Plaintiff’s lawyer, Kaeske, stated citizens’ property rights should not depend on who was their first, Thackston explained for the defense one of the plaintiffs sold their land to the defendant for the farm expansion and most of the neighbors did move to the area after the farm was established. Thackston also produced a photo of a close neighbor to the farm not in the lawsuit who had built an in-ground swimming pool only 1,000 feet away from the farm’s property.
Kaeske described to the jury how nasty hogs live while showcasing photos of the dirty animals. He also described odor, flies and truck noises as nuisances coming with being a neighbor to the Sholar Farm. Kaeske lead the jury to his plaintiffs’ addresses on a projector screen in the court room showing their home locations and the location of the Sholar Farm.
The jury heard about plaintiffs’ family members not coming to visit because of the smell. The neighbors of the farm could not plan parties and barbecues at their homes because of the embarrassing odor according to their attorney. Kaeske told the jury how the flies were so irritating to the farm neighbors.
Kaeske pointed out, William Murphy, one of the hog farm neighbors in the lawsuit, is a war veteran. The jury was told Murphy built a screen porch at his home because of the flies, however, the porch is not used due to the odor from the farm according to Kaeske. As he continued his arguments he added the complaints of the neighbors about the hog truck’s disturbing noises in the neighborhood at all hours of the day and night.
Thackston fired back at the plaintiffs’ case by pointing out numerous other chicken and hog farms in the area. Some of the area farms are even closer to the neighbors’ in the case, than the Sholar Farm, he explained. The odor and flies the plaintiffs are complaining about, could come from any of the other area farms, Thackston argued.
Kaeske objected stating Thackston was not an expert on flies. Many in the court audience laughed. Thackston explained no one has produced a fly expert. Kaeske does not have a fly expert stating the flies that the plaintiffs are complaining about in the lawsuit, traveled two to three thousand feet from the Sholar Farm to the neighbors’ property. Thackston added the flies could very well come from other farms that are closer to the residents or no farm at all. Judge Faber overruled the objection.
To argue the point about the truck noise, Thackston stated the noise the neighbors hear could be coming from the two truck drivers that live in the neighborhood.
Kaeske told the jury, as he has in the past three other trials, about the pork industry changing from small farms to industrial farms. He gave an account of how Smithfield is an industry giant. He mentioned how thousands of pigs are produced by the farm compared to the small operations North Carolina had back in the 1970’s.
The defense attorney, Thackston countered Kaeske industry changing argument by explaining how other things have changed in our country of the years. He mentioned shopping going from a Sears catalog, to Walmart and now to Amazon. Thackston added that political officials gave an economic feasibility report and designed legislation to protect small farmers.
Thackston also gave examples of how the industry farming is safer now because of the construction of the hog houses and the care the animals receive.
The two sides continue to battle the case out in the federal court room. The fourth trial may continue into December.