North Carolina jury awards neighbors $473.5 million in Smithfield hog waste suit

On August 3, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $473.5 million—the largest of three matching verdicts that seem to indicate the momentum is in favor of the plaintiffs as the remaining trials advance through the courts. Though compensation will be limited by the state's cap on damages.

UPDATE, AUGUST 3, 2018, 12:50 P.M., EST: Since the first trial’s conclusion in April (which we cover below), two juries have reached the same verdict in subsequent nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. On August 3, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $473.5 million—the largest to date. The three matching verdicts seem to indicate the momentum is in favor of the plaintiffs as the remaining trials advance through the courts. Though, actual compensation is likely to be quite limited by North Carolina’s cap on damages.

A North Carolina jury ruled on Thursday, April 26, 2018, that Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer, must pay its neighbors $50 million in damages as the result of a nuisance lawsuit. It’s a major win for advocates who have fought the pork industry for decades.

In the lawsuit, filed in 2014, the 10 plaintiffs argued that waste from Kinlaw Farm, a hog producer that contracts with Murphy-Brown, smelled so bad it limited their access to the outdoors in rural Bladen County, North Carolina. They also argued that the farm’s open waste lagoons attracted buzzards and flies, and that trucks full of dead animals passed their houses at all hours of the day and night.

“Even in your sleep, you got to be disturbed by odor and truck lights and stuff,” says Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, a group that has advocated on behalf of local residents. She adds that this is the first time anyone has ever filed an action of this magnitude in court. “I tell you, it is pretty historic.”

The win may be inspirational for other communities organizing against industrial agriculture’s interests.
This was the first of 26 nuisance cases local residents have brought against the company, and the results indicate that the momentum is on the side of the plaintiffs. Nuisance lawsuits—particularly nuisance lawsuits filed against meat producers in states where the industry employs powerful lobbyists—are notoriously difficult to bring to trial, much less to win.

The jury in this case ruled that each plaintiff should be awarded $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

“It’s been a long, hard-fought battle. This is decades old in this state,” Muhammed says.

Yet the pork industry appears to be one step ahead of the plaintiffs: Less than a year go, the North Carolina Legislature passed a law that limits the amount of money agricultural entities have to pay in damages in nuisance suits, North Carolina Policy Watch reports. The industry-backed North Carolina Pork Council has donated $90,000 to legislative candidates since the year 2000, and Muhammad says the congressman who sponsored the bill hailed from the largest pork-producing county in the state. Compensatory damages—that’s the money a jury awards for recovery from property devaluation, medical bills, and lost wages—were limited to loss of property value only, not loss of quality of life. North Carolina statute also limits punitive damages to triple the amount of compensatory damages, Politico’s Morning Agriculture reports.

Smithfield has already announced its plan to appeal this decision.
What this means is that, even though this North Carolina jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 million in compensatory damages, each individual is likely only to receive $225,000 (or triple the value of the $75,000 in compensatory damages). Had the new legislation not passed last year, that $75,000 figure might have been much higher, since it would’ve included money that accounted for reduction in quality of life.

Muhammad says she isn’t familiar with the state’s specific limits on punitive damages, but for her, the win is about more than money. “Even if that’s the case, the victory is in making this industry pay for the damages they’ve done to people. They were looking to walk scot-free,” she says.

The jury’s decision did not include a mandate that Murphy Brown change its manure management practices, but Muhammad says she hopes the pork industry will see the writing on the wall.

The plaintiffs’ win may prove inspirational for other communities where residents are organizing against industrial agriculture’s interests. “I believe that this case, this judgment in North Carolina, is really going to send a strong message to communities across the country that are threatened by industrial farms that they don’t have to take it, they don’t have to take being rolled over by these huge industries,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, CEO of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, an advocacy group that organizes in opposition to factory farms. “It’s definitely going to give folks hope and keep them fighting back.”

“I tell you, it is pretty historic.”
Smithfield has already announced its plan to appeal, Indy Week reports. In a statement, the company called the lawsuits an “outrageous” attack on animal agriculture, adding that “from the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine.”

According to Politico’s Morning Agriculture, Murphy Brown could potentially appeal to place the blame on its contractor, Kinlaw Farm, which was not named as a defendant in the original lawsuit. That would mean that the growers—not Murphy Brown or Smithfield, who handle everything except the actual animals and their manure—would be responsible for paying the damages.

“The industry owns everything except the waste, that’s what the growers have been told,” Muhammad says. “They [the industry] own the animals, they own the feed, they own the trucks.” She says she hopes contract growers will be spurred to act when they realize they may have to foot the bill for the Murphy Brown lawsuits.

“Maybe this will encourage the growers to take a stand, because they need to take a stance on this industry as well,” she adds. “They were sold a bag of goods that was full of ants.”

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.