NC Lawmakers OK Limiting Nuisance Lawsuits Against Hog Farms
North Carolina lawmakers decided Thursday that hog and poultry operations should get added protection from lawsuits by neighbors complaining that swarms of flies and the intense stink of animal waste create a nuisance.
The Republican-dominated state House gave final approval to legislation restricting how much neighbors of high-density hog and poultry barns could collect if they prove a nuisance. The measure becomes law if it is signed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
The legislation was prompted by pending federal lawsuits involving about 500 rural neighbors against Murphy-Brown LLC, the North Carolina-based hog production division of Virginia's Smithfield Foods. They are U.S. subsidiaries of the Chinese company that is the world's largest pork producer.
Lawmakers changed the original language so that the new limits would not apply to the pending litigation.
The measure restricts compensatory damages in cases where a farm or forestry operation is proved to create a nuisance to the lost property value or rental value plaintiffs. Nuisance claims are the same type of legal action other property owners could bring to force changes if their neighbor's garbage attracts rats or rusting cars multiply.
The legislation is designed to undercut the appeal of such lawsuits for lawyers who would pursue cases with little or no upfront payment by plaintiffs and the hope of a big payday if they win a case.
The Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance estimate that about 60,000 North Carolina homes are within a half-mile of livestock operations, the range within which families are mostly likely to pursue lawsuits to stop an alleged nuisance.
Supporters said the new protections are needed for the rural economy of eastern North Carolina, the country's No. 3 hog state where pork was worth $2.3 billion in 2015, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
"Sometimes an operation that's being sued was there first," said Rep. Larry Pittman. "I feel like if a farm is there first, and you know this is going on, then don't complain."
Opponents called the legislation another example of the politically powerful pork lobby getting its way. Neighbors have complained for decades about the smells from intensive hog production that causes headaches and clings to clothes. Wind-driven spray has been known to coat a neighboring home's exterior in liquefied excrement, some people have said.
Agricultural businesses were getting special legal treatment that doesn't exist for other potentially noxious neighbors, Rep. John Blust argued.
"A neighboring property owner of say, a chemical factory, can recover all these compensatory damages that the common law has long recognized," he said, "but if it's an agricultural operation, a property owner with the same type harm cannot recover those damages."