In agriculture we often spend the majority of our time working away from the public so consequently we believe we are fairly insulated from what happens to our more urban neighbors. We help our farming and ranching neighbors with branding, fencing, even feeding cows in an emergency-- just being good neighbors.
However, it seems the attitude in North Carolina is not so neighborly. A North Carolina family has been facing a tough battle with out-of-state, big trial lawyers who have swooped into their area and are pitting neighbor against neighbor. The charge: hog farming as a business is a nuisance to the very communities the industry supports. For these lawyers, lawsuit abuse is their bread and butter and if they are successful in North Carolina— a state with strong Right-to-Farm laws—there’s nothing stopping them from coming for the rest of us who raise livestock.
The Carter family has been in business for over three decades. Mr. Carter, a retired law enforcement officer is on the volunteer fire department, coaches Little League baseball and has never had an environmental violation on his hog farm. He had hoped to pass the business along to his heirs. This sounds like a good neighbor to me.
In 2014, 26 lawsuits were filed on behalf of 541 plaintiffs who claimed hog farms in their area were creating a “nuisance” to neighbors’ quality of life with farm odor and truck noise. Of special note is these farms were in operation long before the majority of these neighbors moved into the area.
However, at the end of 2017, a North Carolina judge ruled the state’s Right-to–Farm law was no defense against these “nuisance” claims. The first set of trials have returned massive multi-million-dollar verdicts for the plaintiffs. Mr. Carter is under a court order to depopulate his several thousand hog operation. Even after the hogs are gone, the bank is still going to want to be paid for the loan on the state-of the-art buildings, manure handling equipment and tractors. His family may be forced off the land by their neighbors; the very neighbors he helped move into the area. This is tragic.
These farmers are being judged by jurors who live hundreds of miles from their farms and were denied the opportunity to visit the farms for themselves to see if a nuisance really exists. In addition, during the trials, the Carter family was served with a gag order to stop them from talking to the press, ag organizations or even their congressmen because the big-city lawyers feared they would taint the jury pool. How right those lawyers were—imagine if those jurors had the chance to meet with the Carters and learn about hog farming. The results would have been very different and the trial lawyers and neighbors out for easy money would have not walked away with an obscene amount of litigation cash.
Farms of all sizes and commodities should be seriously concerned that even by having good farming practices, following state regulations, being productive members of the community and even a strong Right-to-Farm law are no defense when trial lawyers set their sights on your farm or ranch to cash another big paycheck.
Consumers and farmers alike will pay a price if these lawsuits succeed and the trial lawyers take their playbook around the country. Raising the wholesome food our country depends on is not a nuisance. Farm Bureau has worked alongside other organizations to support the farmers in these suits because if we stand by and let North Carolina farms get run out of business, these frivolous lawsuits are coming for the rest of us in production agriculture.
Originally published in the Fall 2018 edition of the Spokesman.