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By Charlotte Smith

Opening arguments in the third trial involving the Hog Farm Industry began early Thursday morning in the US District Courtroom located in Raleigh. US District Judge Earl Britt has now presided over all three lawsuits involving the pork business.

The defendant in the three cases has been listed as Murphy-Brown, LLC, doing business as Smithfield Hog Production. The plaintiffs in the cases are residents living in close proximity to farms producing pigs for the company.

In the current trial Greenwood Livestock is the properties’ owners and the hog producers. Dean Hilton of Bladen County along with his partners own and operate Greenwood I and II.

The jurors, some covered with blankets during the trial, have listened to testimonies and evidence during the last four weeks. The lawsuit was filed due to claims accusing Murphy-Brown/Smithfield creating nuisances caused by hogs’ odor and pests, according to the plaintiffs case.

Judge Britt instructed the jury before opening arguments began to remember, “The plaintiffs in the case have the burden of proof,” he continued saying, “what the lawyers have to say is not evidence but listen carefully.”

Michael Kaeske, the Attorney for the six plaintiffs started his closing arguments just after 8:30 a.m. Kaeske told the jury, “It’s ok to have doubt. The burden of proof the plaintiffs have to show is, it is more likely so, than not so.”

During Kaeske’s closing remarks he used videos from recorded testimonies, newspaper articles, photos, stated profits of Smithfield and more. He cited, “Smithfield had reason to know a nuisance was likely to result.”

“The industry is dominated by major corporate players. I think it’s time to regulate this industry,” Kaeske quoted from a statement given by Rep. Richard Morgan, a political leader in the late nineties about the Hog Farming Industry. He showed the jurors how Smithfield was purchased by a foreign company named WH Group and listed their profit from last year as 1.5 billion dollars.

Jimmy Carr, one of the plaintiffs, testified his grandchildren don’t come and visit as often because of the smell according to Kaeske. Carr also testified to hearing trucks late at night Kaeske reminded the jury.

Before ending his closing argument Kaeske presented the jury with a question about punitive damages.

Kaeske led them to the question, “What it costs to prevent the harm.” He presented estimated costs for lagoon covers in the amount of 500 million dollars.

Neale, Murphy-Brown’s lawyer, objected and asked for a mistrial due to Kaeske outlining costs and profits with his statement about punitive damages.

Judge Britt overruled the objection and denied the motion.

After the motion Neale started his closing arguments for the defense. He began by saying, “don’t be fooled by everything else you have been subjected to.”

According to Neale the plaintiffs want the jury to focus on the nineties before regulations in the Hog Industry were made.

Neale pointed out three photos to the jury that were not related to the farms contracted with Murphy-Brown. The only medical expert in the case was Dr. Keith Ramsey who was presented by the defense team for medical expert testimony.

Ramsey testified to never seeing or hearing adverse health affects caused by hog farms, Neale stated. He continued with the doctor’s testimony about no relation between the hog farms and MRSA.

Neale explained to the jury that Anaerobic lagoons and spray fields is a sustainable manure management system. Neale stated the plaintiffs put the proven process on trial.

Governors Hunt, Easley, Purdue, McCrory, and Cooper all approved the Hog Industry permits as they continue to operate with the lagoons and spray field processes.

Neale countered Kaeske’s claims of finding a better alternative for hog waste management know as Super Soils. According to Neale, Super Soils process would need 700 solid waste facilities in North Carolina and it has never seen operation. He added Super Soil would put twelve percent of farmers out of business.

Neale also argued covers on the lagoons make the odor worse when sprayed. He said it would increase the nitrogen levels which in turn would increase the ammonia odor.

Neale brought out a calendar presented by the plaintiffs from March to June of 2015 noting that during the 122 days there were no complaints about trucks or buzzards. From 1999 to 2016 there was only one official complaint filed due to odor but was quickly closed after a visit to the farm in question according to Neale.

Neale reminded the jury about the field close by plaintiffs Jimmy Jacob’s and Jimmy Carr’s properties where human waste is used as fertilizer and the testimony plaintiff gave stating the nuisance odor was caused by that field.

The jury was also reminded the plaintiff came back to testify he made a mistake; saying the field with the human waste was not the source of the odor causing the nuisance, but it was the Greenwood hog farm causing the odor. Neale told the jury to decide which side of that plaintiff’s testimony they would choose to believe as the truth.

None of the plaintiffs complained until after the lawsuit process had started back in 2014 according to the defense attorney. He also pointed out no laws are being broken in the hog industry’s operating procedures and the farms are operated according to current state regulations.

Before closing, Neale told the jury Murphy-Brown, LLC maintains Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for their contracted hog producers. When a hog farmer/producer is not managing their farms well, Murphy-Brown will and has asked the farmers to sell their property to someone who may manage their hog production farms better, Neale stated. He continued saying, Dean Hilton, the hog producer in the trail and a witness testified to terminating employees who did not practice Murphy-Brown’s SOP as well. 

There is no evidence proving the plaintiff’s claims Neale told the jury at the end of his argument.

Before adjourning the jury heard once more from Kaeske, the Attorney representing the plaintiffs. Kaeske repeated the quote by Rep. Richard Morgan from the 1990’s about the industry being dominated by corporate leaders and mentioned it was a foreign operation. 

Before retiring from the argument Kaeske mentioned the profits being funneled to the top of Smithfield and it’s foreign owners and the dollars spent on advertising and lobbyist by the company. Finally he asked the jury to think about everything his clients have suffered in the past seven years when deciding punitive damages.

Judge Britt gave the jury a packet of instructions and then read them to the group before adjourning for them to deliberate. The jury left the courtroom just before 2 p.m. to begin deliberations. No verdict has been announced at time of publication. 

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