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Jury awards more than $25 million to Duplin County couple in hog-farm case


A North Carolina jury has awarded more than $25 million to a couple in the eastern part of the state who filed a nuisance lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, for the swarms of flies, stench, rumbling trucks and other downsides of the hog farm next door.

The verdict came on Friday after the jury deliberated for three days behind closed doors. It is the second verdict for hog farm neighbors in a series filed against Smithfield Foods.

The decision also comes in a week in which North Carolina lawmakers adopted a new Farm Act that restricts when and how neighbors can bring such claims in court in the future.

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Elvis and Vonnie Williams live in Duplin County, near a 4,700-hog farm owned by Joey Carter, a former Beulaville police chief.

The Williamses did not sue their neighbor, though.

They sued Smithfield Foods as part of a legal strategy that a team of lawyers began crafting in 2014.

The lawsuits filed by some 500 residents against Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods are focused on the pork industry giant's continued use of "anaerobic lagoons" in which hog waste is stored behind livestock pens, then liquefied and sprayed onto nearby fields.

The lawyers went after the pork producers, contending that such a practice presents a public nuisance.

North Carolina has about 9 million hogs on nearly 2,300 hog farm operations. Iowa is the only state with more hogs, showing an inventory of about 21.8 million in 2017.

"The verdict is heartbreaking and could have severe and unforeseen economic consequences for our farmers, the pork industry and all of North Carolina agriculture," the North Carolina Pork Council said in a statement. "It is heartbreaking because the jury did not hear the full story about Joey Carter's farm — and now an honest, hardworking farmer stands to lose everything."

Hog farm advocates have been critical of the judge's decision not to let the jury visit the farms and exclude some of the evidence Smithfield Foods wanted to introduce at trial.

The jury in the first case to be heard before U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt awarded 10 neighbors $51 million. The judge reduced the award to nearly $3 million because of a state law that limits punitive damages in such cases.

"Once again, our jury system has found Smithfield’s subsidiary liable for creating a nuisance against a different set of neighbors," said Ryke Longest, director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. "Neighbors with active cases can still pursue these claims. But the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the North Carolina Farm Act last week to cut off access to our courts for neighbors who suffer nuisance conditions caused by large swine farms."

"The cost to replace lagoon and spray-field technology is about one million dollars per farm," Longest said. "In the end it would be much better for the swine industry to replace all the lagoons and spray-fields so that our state’s rural economy can grow with the new construction activity that lagoon conversion would bring."

Smithfield Foods has claimed that changing the technology would be too costly.

But others such as Longest contend "new technologies can eliminate ammonia emissions, odors, pathogens and reduce the risk of spills and discharges to groundwater which always exist with lagoons and spray-fields. It only requires the will to invest the money to support the growers who have supported Smithfield and to protect the neighbors who seek to be able to enjoy their property as well."

Hog farm advocates have been critical of the judge's decision not to let the jury visit the farms and exclude some of the evidence Smithfield Foods wanted to introduce at trial.

On Wednesday, the judge issued an order that prohibits any of the parties from talking about the case because of the other lawsuits in the pipeline.

It is expected that Smithfield Foods will appeal the verdict as the company said it would after the first case.

In the Williamses' case, the jury awarded $65,000 to each in compensatory damages and $12.5 million apiece in punitive damages.

Punitive damages can be awarded only after a jury finds that a defendant acted “intentionally, maliciously, or with utter disregard for the rights and interests of the plaintiff.”

But the state law that caps punitive damages limits what the Williamses can receive to no more than $250,000 each. Altogether, the jury's $25.13 million award is likely to be reduced to $630,000.

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