ROSE HILL — Lawyers must edit out references to the Chinese government, the Communist Party and the country’s People’s Liberation Army from a lawsuit complaining that North Carolina neighbors of industrial hog farms have endured terrible smells for decades, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt agreed with industry lawyers that the references to Chinese ownership of a major U.S. pork producer are inflammatory and don’t belong in the lawsuit.
“These allegations are highly prejudicial to defendant and have little to no bearing on plaintiffs’ underlying claims,” Britt wrote in a decision last week.
More than 500 neighbors of industrial-scale hog operations across eastern North Carolina have filed two dozen nuisance lawsuits since last summer challenging the smells and clouds of flies they say have been unaddressed since the factory farms moved in during the 1990s.
The lawsuits target factory-farms pioneer Murphy-Brown LLC. Murphy-Brown has been owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods since 2000. Smithfield was bought by WH Group in 2013, the largest takeover of a U.S. company by a Chinese corporation.
Lawyers for Murphy-Brown complained it was “immaterial, impertinent and scandalous” for the neighbors’s lawyers to describe WH Group’s chairman as a member of China’s Communist Party and a former soldier in the country’s People’s Liberation Army, which has its own business interests.
“We had argued that the plaintiffs’ sole purpose in making these references was to raise inflammatory and irrelevant issues and to inject bias and prejudice into the court proceedings,” Murphy-Brown attorney Mark Anderson said in an email.
The lawsuits are founded on largely outdated and resolved claims, Anderson said.
“Smithfield Foods has said repeatedly that any person who has a complaint about one of their farms should bring it to the company’s attention, and it will do everything in its power to address the matter. Smithfield strives to be a good neighbor in North Carolina,” he wrote.
A lawyer for the people suing over the smells, John Hughes, declined to comment Monday. His firm plans to distribute revised copies of the lawsuit by the end of next week, lawyers said in a court filing.
Britt refused to order excised from the lawsuit allegations involving exports to China and Chinese demand for and purchases of pork because “these allegations address a potential source of the alleged nuisance and provide potentially useful contextual information.”
The WH Group buyout was motivated largely to provide the Communist-led country a steady supply of cheaper, untainted U.S.-grown meat to meet growing Chinese demand, Smithfield executives and industry analysts said at the time.
The lawsuits contend Chinese demand for more North Carolina-sourced pork will only increase the nuisance for hog-farm neighbors.