Nuisance lawsuits brought against North Carolina hog farmers and their integrator in 2018 and 2019 have highlighted the need for Georgia’s Right to Farm law to be strengthened to prevent similar lawsuits against Georgia farmers.
The first five jury trials resulted in juries awarding almost $550 million in damages to the plaintiffs. North Carolina law requires the damages be reduced to about $98 million. The fifth trial ended in early March. Another 21 cases are waiting to be heard.
While speaking to members of Georgia Farm Bureau’s Commodity Advisory Committees earlier this year, Andy Curliss, chief executive officer of the North Carolina Pork Council, discussed the motives driving lawyers and the strategy they’ve used to win nuisance lawsuits against four farms that raised hogs for Murphy-Brown, the hog farm segment of Smithfield Foods.
Curliss said the lawsuits are being brought to court by experienced trial lawyers who belong to Public Justice, an organization of trial lawyer firms, heavily funded by wealthy activists who enlist the lawyers to represent their causes.
“This is not local attorneys representing plaintiffs but experienced trial lawyers bringing class action lawsuits against the profitability of agriculture,” Curliss said. “There is no claim of health issues. There’s no claim of property devaluation nor water pollution. It’s an annoyance claim over odor and noise from trucks entering and leaving the farms.”
Although North Carolina has a right-to-farm law, U.S. Judge Earl Britt, who heard the early cases, said the law didn’t give farmers protection against the lawsuit. The cases were heard in federal court since the claims against the farmers were dismissed and the remaining defendant, Murphy-Brown, is part of Smithfield, a national company.
While Murphy-Brown is responsible for paying the verdicts, the farms have stopped raising hogs to avoid more lawsuits.
Curliss said the strategy used to win the suits is called the Reptile Theory. According to the theory, when a lawyer presents jurors with a perceived threat, even a small one, their “reptile brain,” which is responsible for the primitive survival instinct for safety and self-preservation awakens, overpowering logic and reason. Reptile Theory advocates credit it for jurors granting massive awards.
Curliss praised the support North Carolina communities and businesses have given hog farmers.
“County commissions across North Carolina have adopted resolutions supporting farmers and Eastern North Carolina communities have shown support for farms with yard sign campaigns not organized by the North Carolina Pork Council,” Curliss said.
Curliss encouraged the ag community to develop a plan to counter the attacks wealthy activists are waging against animal agriculture through the use of nuisance lawsuits.
During the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McCall and Reps. Jon Burns, Robert Dickey, Terry England, Clay Pirkle and Sam Watson worked to strengthen Georgia’s existing right to farm law by eliminating loopholes that could leave Georgia farmers vulnerable to nuisance lawsuits.
The Georgia House passed House Bill 545, but it stalled in the Senate Rules Committee. The legislation is eligible for continued consideration in the 2020 session.
Georgia Farm Bureau (GFB) and other ag organizations supported HB 545 to protect farmers’ right to farm. GFB will continue working to strengthen Georgia’s right to farm bill and encourages its members to tell their state legislators, especially senators, of the need for protecting Georgia farmers against nuisance lawsuits.