RALEIGH — Those noxious smells coming from hog farms? They’re only worth so much money in neighbors’ pockets now.
This week, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed legislation capping farms’ liability in lawsuits. Under the legislation, penalties imposed against agricultural entities, including hog farms, would be limited when neighbors bring lawsuits against the operations under the “nuisance laws.” The bill approved by the House restricts the award to lost rental or property value that can be directly attributed to the nearby farm and cannot exceed the market value of the property allegedly devalued.
“This was a lawyer’s bill,” said Bladen County Democratic Representative William Brisson, who, along with Republican Representative Brenden Jones, voted in favor of the bill. “It was the right thing to do.”
Prior to passing, however, the bill underwent a significant change. Lengthy debate sprung up about whether the bill should apply to current litigation.
“We don’t need to be, at the last minute, rushing in to bail out a defendant — and that’s what’s happening,” Republican Rep. John Blust, the Greensboro lawyer behind the amendment, told The Associated Press.
Arguments were made that applying the legislation to current lawsuits would, in effect, create a situation where legislators were determining the outcome of current lawsuits, a job entrusted to the judicial branch of government, not the legislative.
Brisson said the proposal was “not a good amendment” and he, along with Jones, voted against it. The amendment narrowly passed, 59-56, but Brisson said now that the bill is headed to the Senate, he wouldn’t be surprised if the other chamber voted to remove the amendment from the language of HB 467/S460.
The amendment directly affects a Bladen County site. Possibly taking place as early as this summer are federal lawsuits targeting Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel. The group of lawsuits brought by 500 neighbors of North Carolina hog farms claims significant problems arise from flies and smells emanating from neighboring property.
“This is why I called this a lawyer’s bill,” explained Brisson. “We’ve spent millions of dollars getting regulations on air quality and water quality, and this firm from Texas comes and tells people, ‘We’ll get you some money. You don’t have to do anything.’ This firm worked in Iowa doing the same thing and then moved to North Carolina, because we’re near the top in the country with hog production. They came in and stirred people up about nuisance laws, which is why we needed this legislation.”
Without the amendment’s protection, Smithfield could be conceivably awarding millions of dollars to each plaintiff who claims hog farms have ruined their own property.
Under current regulations, liquid waste is often sprayed onto fields, but the times when farms can do so are limited to daytime hours. Stipulations also limit the humidity level under which such measures can be practiced.
“There’s nothing wrong with the current guidelines,” commented Brisson. “Very few people have complained about hog farms for 21 years — until this firm came along — because the regulations work when they’re followed. Some farmers may not follow the rules, and that creates problems, but the regulations are good.”
One of the bill’s sponsors, Duplin County’s Jimmy Dixon, said the bill was necessary to protect the state’s pork producers and told the Associated Press the allegations against hog farms are “at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies.”
Repeated calls to Smithfield Foods for comment went unanswered.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.