North Carolina’s agriculture industry, especially its hog farmers, have been rocked by the string of nuisance lawsuits brought against Murphy-Brown. Since the summer of 2013, the company (and its contract growers) has been fighting in court against determined personal injury lawyers seeking huge verdicts. The company is almost half way through eleven trials that started in April 2018. The first three trials delivered verdicts that shocked the business and agriculture communities, generating concern about the future of our farmers and that of the hog farming industry – one of the largest industries east of I-95. With out-of-state personal injury attorneys spinning distorted tales and court rulings in the initial cases that seemed inconsistent with tort reform laws passed years ago, these nuisance lawsuits have been like none we’ve seen before.
In December 2018, the fourth trial appeared to offer some bright spots for the industry, with the jury handing down verdicts that were strikingly different than those delivered in the first three. In stark contrast to the half a billion dollars awarded in the first three trials, the damages awarded in the fourth trial ranged from $100-$75,000 – totaling just over $100,000 in compensatory damages for all of the plaintiffs, with no award of punitive damages. Of course, it was still disappointing that this farm was deemed a nuisance.
How are these different results explained? The judge presiding over the first three cases did not properly apply the 2011 tort reforms, but the judge for the fourth trial did. In the fourth case, the Court ruled that Murphy-Brown was not acting with malice or deliberately harming neighbors and, therefore, no punitive damages would be awarded. This application of the law allowed the tort reform protections enacted years prior to function as they were intended.
The fifth trial concluded on March 8th. Unfortunately, the law was again misapplied, and punitive damages were awarded. The total damages awarded to the ten plaintiffs amounted to $420,000. Although, if the personal injury attorneys had their way, the damages would have been between $30 and $50 million per plaintiff.
Big picture, the debate occurring in the courtroom is over views of how to regulate the industry. The development of proper policy to regulate hog farming and all industry in our state is important. There should be vigorous public debate and careful consideration by policymakers, but the point is, this responsibility belongs to our policymakers, not out-of-state lawyers from Texas who seek to unfairly inflame juries. The National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several other national industry groups recently filed an amicus brief with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals making a similar assertion.
North Carolina’s agriculture industry is far too important to our state’s competitive economy to let it be controlled by out-of-state personal injury attorneys hoping to cash a big check. We fought for the 2011 reforms to strengthen North Carolina’s legal climate for all businesses and it was encouraging to see them at work in the fourth trial. To make those reforms even stronger and clarify protections against these frivolous lawsuits, we fought for the passage of House Bill 467: Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies and Senate Bill 711: The Farm Act of 2018. This legislative session, advancing additional tort and civil liability reforms to further protect against these nuisance lawsuits is one of our top priorities. We will continue to fight for solutions that protect businesses and ensure they can continue to operate in our state.
Gary J. Salamido
Chief Operating Officer and Acting President