Raleigh, N.C. — A measure that would limit compensatory damages for property owners around hog farms is expected on the House floor Thursday. Critics say the measure discriminates against the low-income minority communities that surround most such operations, but backers say it's needed because of predatory legal tactics by attorneys for some property owners.
House Bill 467, sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, passed the House Judiciary III Committee Wednesday. It would cap compensatory damages in legal nuisance cases against agricultural or forestry operations to no more than the market value of the property.
The bill is unusual because it appears to target a pending lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, by property owners who live near hog farms that are suppliers to the corporation.
Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, said legislation is allowed to affect pending cases "only if it provides clarification and also is remedial." House Bill 467 meets those criteria, he said, "because it resolves uncertainty under North Carolina law" about the limits of damages, which the federal judge in the lawsuit noted were lacking in the case.
Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee, argued that the legislation should not be allowed to affect pending litigation.
"We're actually aiming at one particular case," Reives said. "This is, in fact, changing law. We will now be saying, 'This is all you can get in compensatory damages.'"
Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, asked why the bill sponsor sought to limit damages specifically in nuisance cases.
"That's what the plaintiffs are using," Davis replied.
Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford, noted that the bill's impact would be discriminatory because the plaintiffs in the case are mostly African-American and because most hog farms "are located in areas that are predominantly low-income, predominantly African-American."
"I'm not trying to judge anyone's intent," Quick added. "The actual application of it is discriminatory."
"Your assessment that it is discriminatory is not my assessment," Dixon responded.
Quick argued that the bill "would set up basically a corporate eminent domain," incentivizing hog farms to locate in poor communities because they know their potential liability for damages will be minimal.
"I do know that there are people who've been impacted," Quick said. "Capping the redress they can receive is unfair."
"We have a difference of opinion there, Rep. Quick," Dixon replied, saying that damage caused to surrounding properties by hog farm odor and sprayed waste "simply does not exist to the degree that the plaintiff lawyers are saying."
The committee heard brief remarks from four speakers about the measure – two farmers who said the bill would protect them from potential "financial ruin" and two critics of the measure who accused lawmakers of curtailing their rights in order to benefit corporate interests.
Many other members of the public attended the meeting but weren't given time to speak. Chairman Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, insisted that the bill would be voted out of committee at 1:45 p.m., and it passed on a voice vote along party lines.