GOP officials show hog farmers love as next nuisance suit heads to court

Posted July 10, 2018 7:30 p.m. EDT

— As a federal court jury was being seated in Raleigh on Tuesday for the third in a string of lawsuits against pork giant Smithfield Foods, Republican lawmakers and state officials went to Duplin County to express their support for hog farmers and to rail against the lawsuits and trial attorneys.

Two previous juries have awarded a combined $75 million to residents who live near major Smithfield hog farms in eastern North Carolina, although the punitive damages in each case were later slashed under a state-imposed cap.

"I hope this is a wake-up call not just for the hog industry, but for every farmer in this state [who] needs to understand that you are not safe," Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told a crowd of a couple hundred at a farm outside Beulaville that was the focus of the second lawsuit.

Hundreds of residents are part of a dozen lawsuits claiming that the odors, insects, vermin and other nuisances associated with the large hog farms have harmed their property values and their quality of life.

"I apologize for the travesty of justice that has occurred in a federal courtroom here in North Carolina," Troxler said, insisting that "untruths and blatant lies" were told during the trials.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, said neither of the first two trials was fair to the farmers.

"We don't feel like we've been judged by a jury of our peers. Our peers are here today," Dixon said to the cheers of the crowd.

The judge in the first trial refused to let jurors travel to a hog farm in Bladen County to experience the sights, smells and sounds themselves. Dixon and some farmers said the trials should be held in eastern North Carolina, not in Raleigh.

Federal court juries are pulled from people who live through the eastern third of the state, not solely from the Raleigh area.

"Our desire is to take our message to the people of North Carolina and to the United States of America and let them make a decision because we're certainly not currently getting justice in the courtroom," Dixon said.

Duplin County is the No. 1 hog-producing county in the nation, but Smithfield has pulled some hogs out after the second lawsuit.

"Educate the jurors. Educate the judges," said Greg Brown, who runs a nearby hog farm and said he's lived in the area for 40 years.

Family farms are "fixing to die," Brown said, because the profits off hog farming make other sectors of agriculture possible.

"It could be us. Anytime it could be us," said Lorender Overman, another hog farmer who fears a nuisance lawsuit.

After the first $50 million verdict in April, state lawmakers passed legislation over Gov. Roy Cooper's veto to tightly limit future lawsuits against hog farms. Under the new state law, which doesn't affect the pending suits, no one who lives more than a half-mile from an alleged nuisance or who moved in after a farm was in operation could sue, and punitive damages would be prevented unless a farm's operation had resulted in a criminal conviction or a civil penalty by regulators.

"What the legislature has done is basically create a new class of citizens who have less right to sue under nuisance laws than any other citizen in the state would have," said Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the Sierra Club of North Carolina.

The lawmakers and other officials at the rally were quick to pin the blame for the lawsuits on trial lawyers promising big paydays to area residents who hadn't previously complained about the nearby hog farms.

"This is one of those times in the history of North Carolina farmers where you have to say enough is enough," Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said. "When we have big-money, out-of-state trial lawyers ginning up plaintiffs around your farms and around your communities so that they can come in and sue you, so they put you out of business and they make millions of dollars doing it, that's not right. That's not fair, and that's not something we should tolerate in North Carolina."