Seven lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown LLC in U.S. District Court Thursday allege the Smithfield Foods Inc. subsidiary failed to take steps to reduce nuisance and injury caused by its farms in Sampson and five surrounding counties.
The suits, brought by Wallace & Graham P.A. of Salisbury, N.C. on behalf of 146 plaintiffs, maintain that Murphy-Brown did not take adequate steps to eliminate the “obnoxious recurrent odors and other causes of nuisance” caused as a result of millions of gallons of manure that come from the hogs.
“The plaintiffs have suffered injury and harm as a direct result of the tens of thousands of swine placed near their homes by Murphy-Brown,” the suit alleges.
The hogs have caused “periodic swarms of flies, other insects and other pests” and trucks transporting the hogs are disruptive and pollutant, impairing plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their properties, according to the filed court documents.
“Plaintiffs have suffered episodes of noxious and sickening odor, onslaughts of flies and pests, nausea, burning and watery eyes, stress, anger, worry, loss of property value, loss of use and enjoyment of their property, inability to comfortably engage in outdoor activities, cookouts, gardening, lawn chores, drifting of odorous mist and spray onto their land, inability to keep windows and doors open, difficulty breathing and numerous other harms,” the filed complaint notes.
The odor and nuisance has caused embarrassment and humiliation for the plaintiffs.
Of the total number of plaintiffs listed in court documents, 15 reside in Sampson County, all having Rose Hill addresses. Half of the total plaintiffs — 75 — are located in Duplin County, specifically the Rose Hill, Beulaville and Wallace areas. The remaining plaintiffs are divided between Pender, Bladen, Greene and Wilson.
In outlining various complaints, the lawsuits also note Smithfield Foods’ sale to a Chinese corporation, Shuanghui, in late 2013 in a transaction estimated to have a value in excess of $7 billion.
“Defendant clearly has the resources to eliminate the nuisance yet has not done so,” according to Wallace & Graham’s court filing. “Defendant has the means and ability to correct the nuisance but has failed to do so negligently and improperly. Over the years, defendant has continued to cause its hogs to create nuisance and injury without taking action to end the nuisance despite repeated episodes of damage and mounting scientific research verifying the harm suffered by the plaintiffs.”
Farm nuisance disputes were filed in the Wake County Courthouse in July 2013 by attorneys representing hundreds of claimants, all of eastern North Carolina, including Sampson. Those disputes subsequently materialized into 25 civil actions alleging farm nuisance, including smell and pollution from hog waste lagoons and spraying at farms owned and operated by Murphy-Brown farmers in Sampson and surrounding counties.
Attorney Mark Anderson of McGuireWoods LLP, representing Murphy-Brown LLC and parent company Smithfield Foods Inc., said the seven suits filed Thursday are “for the most part” from those previous 25.
While the suits do name individual contract growing operations under the Murphy-Brown umbrella, deemed Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFOs) in the complaints, attorney Mona Lisa Wallace of Wallace & Graham was adamant there was only one defendant being sued.
“To be absolutely clear, the local contract growers are not a party to these lawsuits,” Wallace told The Independent on Friday. “As the complaint alleges in detail, Murphy-Brown owns the hogs and controls every aspect of the hog production process. If Murphy-Brown chooses to ask the Court to add the local contract growers as defendants, we will address that at the appropriate time. At this time, however, there is only one defendant: Murphy-Brown.”
The lawsuits seek compensatory damages, punitive damages, pre-judgment and post-judgment interest and any other costs, expenses or fees, as well as appropriate injunctive and equitable relief.
Murphy-Brown owned Sholar Farm in Sampson is among the many individual operations detailed in the lawsuits, with more than a dozen residents raising concerns about the swine confinement facility, which has approximately 7,184 “feeder to finish” swine.
Allen T. Johnson resides on Moon Johnson Road, where he has for nearly his entire life. In court documents, Johnson said he and his son — and Johnson’s mother before she passed — have gotten sick because of the hog smell that comes from the site, as well as the sprayfields and dead hogs left in a “dead box” only a couple hundred feet away from his house. When the family smelled the odor, it made it hard to eat, according to the complaint.
Johnson, who is disabled, said family does not like to visit because of the stench. He said he remembers what it was like before the facility was there, when the bad smells and swarms of flies were not there.
Mary Tatum, a lifelong resident of Moon Johnson Road, had the same assessment in the suit. She said she has seen buzzards flying around the yard and when there is spraying in the air the odor heightens to the point she finds it hard to breathe and is scared to go outside because of the spray, the smell and the flies, court documents state.
Darlene Fowler Maynor and her mother Lottie Fowler live across Herring Road from one another and both attested to a foul smell from the nearby facility. Maynor has a child and said she would like to pass the land on to her son, but is concerned that the value of the home has gone down because of the thousands of hogs nearby, according to court documents.
In Duplin County, Murphy-Brown’s Joey Carter Farms facility, containing approximately 4,740 “feeder to finish” swine, comes under fire.
Woodell McGowan resides on Hallsville Road with his wife, Wanda McGowan, said they worry about the effect of the hog odor and nuisance on their young grandchildren. When the odor is bad, it interferes with them playing outdoors, according to the complaint.
Court documents show that McGowan’s ancestors owned many of the surrounding parcels of land near their home, including the plot that was purchased by J.D. Carter in 1992 at an estate sale. As executor of the estate, McGowan was never informed that the purchaser planned to build a new hog facility in his backyard and, the suit states, the McGowans now have concerns that their property value has declined and become much less attractive to buyers because of the swine.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.