Farming under attack by out-of-state lawyers
by Sen. Brent Jackson N.C. Senate
Agriculture is a pillar of North Carolina’s economy. According to NC State University, the food, fiber, and forestry industries make up almost 17 percent of our state’s $425 billion gross product. That means agriculture contributes more than $71 billion to the state’s economy. (cite NCSU)
We see this with soybeans, sweet potatoes, peanuts, poultry, and in Eastern North Carolina, hogs. Around here, hog farming is a way of life and arguably the largest driver of our local and state economies.
Data compiled by the North Carolina Pork Council shows that in 2011 the hog industry was the state’s second leading source of gross farm income, generating almost 24% of all NC farm receipts. (cite NCPC) Overall, swine production and pork packing and processing in North Carolina are estimated to produce $9 billion in revenue each year and directly employ 46,000 people, making North Carolina the second largest hog producing state in the country.
We are proud of our farming heritage and we recognize that it is a vitally important component of our local economy. Hog farming, and the thousands of jobs it creates, has sustained Eastern North Carolina families despite the loss or diminishment of other major industries like textiles and furniture manufacturing.
Now, our communities are being threatened by out-of-state trial lawyers seeking to end hog farming by launching baseless lawsuits and accusations against local farmers.
These outside lawyers have made a killing in fees from settlements across the country by bringing so-called nuisance claims against farms just like those in our local communities. These lawyers are very public about their disdain for agriculture. They even have a website dedicated to their goal of shutting down farms.
Lawyers are being hired here in North Carolina to recruit local residents to sue their neighbors with the promise of a quick cash settlement. Most of these cases do not list any specific damages, nor do they cite an actual complaint or violation on the part of any of the targeted farms.
In fact, there is troubling information now surfacing that people are being recruited on the street and are signing unethical retainer agreements. These agreements allow lawyers to drop the cases if it is not in their own personal interest, but can impose significant financial penalties on individual claimants who may have second thoughts and want to withdraw – in effect, forcing them to continue. Such practices violate ethics code and statute.
These trial lawyers know that farming is a low margin business and that farmers need to put their money into the farm, not into legal fees. Like they have in other farm communities, they expect to ride into town, file bogus claims, and ride out with North Carolinians’ money.
It will be up to the courts to decide if these cases are frivolous, but regardless of that outcome, it is clear that these out-of-state lawyers are targeting the livelihood of many area residents, not just farmers. We can’t allow our communities to come under this kind of unwarranted attack.
What makes Eastern North Carolina special is that our neighbors and our community are our extended family. Our children go to school together; we attend high school football games together; we worship together; we mourn the passing of relatives together; and we protect one another from hardships, both economic and personal. These outside lawyers are threatening our family-owned farms and exploiting members of our community in order to cash in on our most important local industry.
Just this year, the legislature passed a tort reform measure that would require plaintiffs to pay a defendant’s legal fees if a nuisance claim was found to be baseless. This policy is just a first step towards ending the type of predatory behavior we now see dividing our community.
These lawyers should not be allowed to get away with this behavior in North Carolina, and as a member of the General Assembly, I will continue to monitor these lawsuits and do everything in my power to prevent frivolous lawsuits from threatening our farms, our economy, and our community.
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