By Lisa Sorg, NC Policy Watch Dog
A jury deliberated for less than two days before awarding 10 plaintiffs $50 million in a hog nuisance lawsuit against Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.
According to the verdict sheet, the jury unanimously agreed that Murphy-Brown, which owns the hogs at Kinlaw Farms in Bladen County, “substantially and unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of their property.” The jury awarded each of the plaintiffs $75,000 on those grounds. But the jury also had the latitude to award punitive damages. They did so: $5 million for each plaintiff. In sum, the plaintiffs, ranging in age from their teens to 85, were awarded a total of $50.7 million.
“We are pleased with the verdict,” said Mona Lisa Wallace of Wallace and Graham law firm in Salisbury, in a prepared statement. The firm represented the plaintiffs, and Michael Kaeske argued the case. “These cases are about North Carolina family property rights and a clean environment. I am grateful for the hard work of our co-counsel, Mike Kaeske, and the others who worked on this trial. We are now preparing for the next which is scheduled for the end of May.”
At least a half-dozen more trials related to nuisances from industrialized hog farms are scheduled through the fall.
Smithfield Foods, a $15 billion global food company, issued a statement in response to the verdict, which the company said it will appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court. Here it is in full:
“We are extremely disappointed by the verdict. We will appeal to the Fourth Circuit, and we are confident we will prevail. 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.
These lawsuits are an outrageous attack on animal agriculture, rural North Carolina and thousands of independent family farmers who own and operate contract farms. These farmers are apparently not safe from attack even if they fully comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations. The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina’s entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians.
From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine. Plaintiffs’ original lawyers promised potential plaintiffs a big payday. Those lawyers were condemned by a North Carolina state court for unethical practices. Plaintiffs’ counsel at trial relied heavily on anti-agriculture, anti-corporate rhetoric rather than the real facts in the case. These practices are abuses of our legal system, and we will continue to fight them.”