GFB commodity meetings highlight legal attacks on NC hog farms
Members of Georgia Farm Bureau’s (GFB) Commodity Advisory Committees (CACs) learned about nuisance lawsuits against North Carolina’s swine community, received a briefing on happenings in the Georgia General Assembly and did some early work on GFB’s 2020 policy during meetings held Feb. 20 and 21 in Macon.
GFB Public Policy Director Jeffrey Harvey provided a legislative update and instructed the committees to seek ways to implement GFB’s 2019 policy. Harvey also tasked the committees with setting priority issues for their commodities for 2020. The CACs meet again in August for the GFB Commodity Conference, the official kickoff of the policy development process for 2020.
Andy Curliss, chief executive officer of the North Carolina Pork Council, gave an overview of 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. The first four jury trials involved 26 plaintiffs that resulted in juries awarding $550 million in damages to the plaintiffs. North Carolina law requires the damages be reduced to $98 million. Another 426 plaintiffs are bringing claims against other farms in trials waiting to be heard.
Curliss explained that the suits are being brought to court by experienced trial lawyers who belong to Public Justice, an organization consisting of trial lawyer firms that is 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 to win the suits is called the Reptile Theory – which some trial lawyers believe enables them to tap into what they call a juror’s “reptile brain” responsible for the primitive survival instinct for safety and self-preservation. According to the theory, when a lawyer presents jurors with a perceived threat, even a small one, their “reptile brain” 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.
GFB members listening to Curliss’ presentation asked if Georgia’s right-to-farm law would prevent similar suits in Georgia.
On Feb. 28, Georgia House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McCall introduced HB 545, which changes the language in the state’s right-to-farm statute. The bill eliminates “changed conditions” language in current state law and replaces it with a requirement that any nuisance complaint against a farm be filed within one year of the date when the farm began its operations. At press time the House had not voted on the bill.
Curliss encouraged the agriculture community to solidify its strengths to develop a plan to counter the attacks wealthy activists are waging against animal agriculture farms through the use of nuisance lawsuits.