Questions About the Nuisance LawsuitMay 1, 2018
There’re a lot of people shaking their heads, worried about a jury verdict in Raleigh. Ten neighbors filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging the hog farm – one hog farm – near them was a nuisance. And a jury awarded them $50 million. $5 million each. So, now, across eastern North Carolina people are wondering, How many farmers could survive a verdict of $100,000 or $500,000 – much less $50 million? They’d go bankrupt.
Now granted, this verdict wasn’t against the farmer who owned the farm. It was against Smithfield Foods. But if a Raleigh jury will award 10 plaintiffs $5 million each, could lawyers begin suing individual farmers next?
Granted too, the $50 million verdict may be reduced. Because it violates the state law that limits punitive damages in these types of lawsuits. In fact, the Raleigh jury awarded fifteen times more than the state limit. But with millions of dollars at stake could the lawyers start looking for a way around the limit?
It’s also true that, last year, the state passed another law that protects farmers from lawyers who bring these types of lawsuits. That law didn’t affect this case – and it won’t affect the other 9 cases the same lawyers have brought – because they were filed before the new law was passed. But, theoretically, the new law would protect farmers in the future from verdicts like this. But could the lawyers start looking for a way around that law too?
The next trial – the second of the 10 original cases – starts on May 29th. The lawyers brought this case first because it was their best case. So history may not repeat itself. Next time the lawyers suing Smithfield Foods may lose. But what if there are more verdicts like this one? How many hog farmers could be put out of business? And what would that do to North Carolina’s economy?
In North Carolina, the foundation of hog farming is a partnership between local farmers and companies like Smithfield Foods. A drought that hurts one, hurts the other. And a $50 million-dollar verdict that hurts one, hurts both. So a lot of farmers are wondering whether a lawyer from Texas, in one trial in a federal courtroom in Raleigh, turned their lives upside down. And they’re asking themselves, How does this end?
The answer to that question matters to the lives of thousands of farmers. And the wrong answer could fracture a pillar of North Carolina’s economy. But getting the answers may take a while. The next trial begins on May 29th.