Raleigh, N.C. — A controversial measure that would limit damages for property owners who live near hog farms and other farming operations passed the House Monday night – but not without a major change and some fireworks along the way.
House Bill 467 would limit the damages that a court could award to a property owner who claims nuisance damage by a nearby agricultural or forestry operation to no more than the actual market value of that property. While the bill doesn't name any specific operation, discussions in a House Judiciary committee last week made it apparent that a group of 26 federal lawsuits against Smithfield Foods subsidiary Murphy-Brown was at least one target of the bill.
As it first passed last Thursday, the bill would be applicable to pending litigation, a rare step for lawmakers to take.
With hundreds of hog farmers and supporters packed into the state House gallery Monday night, sponsor Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, argued that the measure would protect "our hardworking farm families, many of whom have labored diligently for generations to achieve the status that they currently have."
But the measure came in for blunt condemnation from several GOP lawmakers who argued that it would damage property rights, set a bad precedent by intervening in current litigation and would most likely be ruled unconstitutional.
"The bill is only addressing the pending litigation. That’s what it’s for," said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke. "The defendant is worried about losing, and so they’re asking us to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. That’s not our job."
"We are involving ourselves as a legislature as picking a winner in a lawsuit," said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford. "We don’t need at the last minute to be rushing in to bail out a defendant, and that’s what happened."
Blust offered an amendment to remove the measure's retroactive function, specifying that it would only apply to lawsuits filed for causes of action after the law is enacted. It passed narrowly, 59-56.
Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, argued against the amendment, saying that the pending federal case is "on hold" because U.S. District Judge Earl Britt wrote in an order denying a motion that "North Carolina law is not clear on the availability of annoyance and discomfort damages in temporary nuisance actions," and he therefore can't make a determination.
But critics of the bill pointed out that it's been progressing actively since Britt wrote that order in July 2015 and that the judge has more than 200 years of common-law precedent on nuisance damages to look back on.
"If [Judge Britt] needs help," said Rep. Robert Reives, D-Lee, "he'll tell you he needs help."
The amended measure passed the House on its final vote, 68-47. It now goes to the Senate, where the retroactive language could be restored by sponsors there.