Jury awards are community-killing tidal waves

When did a purported nuisance become a multi-million industry of its own? In eastern North Carolina, the answer lies inside a federal courtroom where juries are returning verdicts — and judges are allowing them to fly — calling for hundreds of millions of dollars in punitive damages to be awarded to neighbors living near hog farms.

If that sounds ridiculous to those with any common sense, it’s because that’s what it is — ridiculous. Yet, sadly, that’s exactly what is playing out in Raleigh where the third of over 20 nuisance lawsuits against Smithfield Foods ended late last week with a verdict award of $23.5 million in compensatory damages and $450 million in punitive damages, which by N.C. law will be reduced to a total of $94 million.

But even $94 million, to be divided among six neighbors and, quite naturally their team of lawyers, is an insane amount of money to award to someone who has not been injured, maimed, killed or harmed in any way. In proven cases, with devastating injury or loss, one can understand exorbitant awards, but when it comes to a nuisance, well that smells far more than the odors neighbors claim emanate from the farms and irritate their noses.

Yet jurors believe that neighbors should be paid millions of dollars for what has been termed a nuisance. More precisely, in our estimation, we believe jurors feel this is a way to punish Smithfield for either being a multi-billion company or for not being as quick as they should be to correct environmental issues on hog farms across the state, perhaps even both.

The biggest mistake jurors are making — and there are a plethora of them being made — is to assume that these multi-million dollar judgments are merely hurting Smithfield.

If that is the assumption, then jurors need to be schooled in the truth, something we don’t think they are getting much of up in Raleigh these days.

Those who will be hurt are farm families who make their living off the land and off the hogs that are raised for companies like Smithfield; who will be hurt are the consumers who go to grocery stores across the country to buy not just pork but the hundreds of other row crops and meats that are produced by the very farmers these lawsuits will impact; who will be hurt are the agribusiness owners who provide the products that farmers need to run their farms; who will be hurt are the schools in communities where all these people contribute on a regular basis to not only the tax base but to the fund-raisings that go on month after month, year after year.

The list could go on. Ridiculous awards aimed at punishing one company, which by the way, employs thousands of our friends, neighbors and community contributors to everything from schools and churches to United Ways, fish fries, Relays for Life, etc., winds up punishing everyone.

And for what? A purported nuisance? Again if you think this sounds ridiculous, you are absolutely correct, and if you think these kind of awards are not just precedent-setting (what’s the next nuisance one will sue for – backyard barbecues that infiltrate the noses of neighbors who don’t like the smell of steak?) but community-killing tidal waves that have the potential to wipe out the livelihoods of good, honest, hard-working citizens, sadly you are correct.

We can only hope appeals will reach the ears of level-headed individuals who know that those living next door to hog farms don’t deserve to win the lottery while sending others to the poor house. There’s nothing just or fair about that.

Don’t give the lottery to neighbors while sending farmers to the poor house