The filing of seven federal lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC is “disappointing,” and one that could potentially put hard-working farmers out of business, an attorney for the company said this week.
The suits, filed in U.S. District Court last week, allege the Warsaw-based Smithfield Foods Inc. subsidiary failed to take steps to reduce nuisance and injury caused by company-owned and contract farms in Sampson and five surrounding counties. The lawsuits were brought by Wallace & Graham P.A. of Salisbury, N.C. on behalf of close to 150 plaintiffs.
The odor and nuisance has caused embarrassment and humiliation for plaintiffs, who suits allege “have suffered injury and harm as a direct result of the tens of thousands of swine placed near their homes by Murphy-Brown.”
Attorney Mark Anderson of McGuireWoods LLP, representing Murphy-Brown LLC and parent company Smithfield Foods Inc., said the seven federal suits are essentially a “repackaged” portion of 25 civil farm nuisance disputes originally filed in Wake County Court in July 2013 arguing that pollution from hog waste lagoons and spraying at farms was injuring properties.
“Obviously Murphy-Brown is disappointed that these plaintiffs have, after a year since the initial filing, chose to refile essentially the same lawsuit in federal court,” Anderson said this week. “We were hopeful that the Wallace & Graham law firm and their clients, in taking a hard look at the cases, would see that there was not a basis to go forward. But, they have done so and that’s their right to do so.”
Similar to state court, Anderson said Murphy-Brown would be filing motions to dismiss the cases.
A motions to dismiss, or transfer venue to the courts where those cases are located if the dismissal is not granted, is already pending in state court. There are still 18 other civil cases in state court. As the same lawsuit cannot be heard in two different courts, the next step would be for the court to decide whether the federal cases would stand or be dismissed in favor of being heard at the state level.
“Just as we did a year ago in state court, we would be filing our motions to dismiss,” Anderson said. “Then, the courts, one or the other or both of them, would decide which case gets dismissed. It’s likely to be a couple months just with the procedural aspect … as to whether it would stay in state court or go to federal court.”
Only after that is decided will motions be heard in federal court. That could take months.
Plaintiffs maintain in court documents that the environment created by Murphy-Brown has impaired their use and enjoyment of their properties.
“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 suits allege.
Murphy-Brown “has the means and ability to correct the nuisance but has failed to do so,” the lawsuits state.
“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,” the complaint in court records state.
Anderson said the company stands by its record.
“In addition to dealing with the lawsuits over the course of the past year, we have been very direct in reaching back out to the lawyers indicating to them that Murphy-Brown is a company that prides itself on being a good steward and being a good neighbor,” he asserted.
That includes trying to “learn best practices” at company farms and “work very hard to support family-owned farms” that contract with Murphy-Brown, Anderson stated, ensuring all operations comply with permits.
“I know I have personally been very direct in telling the lawyers that, to the extent there is an identified problem a neighbor has with a farm in the present, when there is a current ongoing problem, we would like to hear about it and we want to make efforts to see that it is corrected. Some of these lawsuits deal with things 20 years ago,” he remarked.
While the suits do detail individual contract growing operations under contract with Murphy-Brown, deemed Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFOs) in the complaints, attorney Mona Lisa Wallace of Wallace & Graham was adamant just a day after the filing that 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. “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.
Although Murphy-Brown is the only named defendant, that would not mean growers are not in harm’s way with the suits, Anderson pointed out.
“That appears to us to be a tactic on the part of the plaintiffs,” the attorney said of naming Murphy-Brown as the sole defendant. “I believe only one of the lawsuits involves a farm (whose) land and operation is actually owned and operated by Murphy-Brown. What the lawsuit is attempting to do is, at the most extreme put those farms out of operation, or at the minimum require changes in the operations of those farms. Given that they’re owned and operated by independent family businesses, I don’t think you can legitimately say that it doesn’t involve or affect the livelihood of the local farmers.”
Once the lawsuits are officially served, the court sets a time frame during which a written response can be filed on behalf of Murphy-Brown, along with any motions. In some cases, sides could be asked to come to court to argue those motions.
“Once the motions are filed, there is no set deadline for the court’s ruling,” Anderson said.
“We think the record shows that, whether it is a company-owned farm or a family farm, to the extent that issues are identified they work very hard to look at solutions in everyone’s best interests,” the attorney said of his client. “They are going to continue to do that whether they are sued or not.”
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.