The Pulse

Jury awards plaintiffs $420,000 as Smithfield loses fifth hog nuisance trial

By: - March 11, 2019 9:34 am

Lendora Farland is nicknamed “Sunshine,” but her testimony last month in federal court illustrated the misery her family has endured, caused, she said, by the stench and flies from a nearby industrialized hog farm in Duplin County.

“The smell is like when a baby has a fever and diarrhea,” Farland, who is a certified nursing assistant, testified. “And when I’m cooking dinner — pork chops, I like them, yes I do — I don’t want to eat with that smell.”

Farland’s affection for pork chops drove home the point that the plaintiffs in all of the hog nuisance cases don’t think Murphy-Brown, which owns the pigs, should go out of business, But the billion-dollar company should change how disposes of the millions of gallons of hog feces and urine. In each case, plaintiffs’ attorneys have argued that Murphy-Brown and its parent company, Smithfield, could choose to eliminate the antiquated waste lagoon and sprayfield system, but to avoid denting their corporate profit margins, have not.

On Friday, a jury awarded 10 plaintiffs a total of $420,000 in compensatory and punitive damages in a hog nuisance trial against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

Punitive damages are awarded when a jury determines a defendant “committed fraud, or acted with malice or engaged in willful or wanton conduct.”Murphy-Brown has lost all five of the nuisance cases in federal district court, with gross damages totaling $550.5 million. Because of a state cap on punitive awards, the net payout is $97.2 million.

Smithfield hasn’t paid these damages, pending the company’s appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

However, in another setback for the company, Senior District Court Judge Earl Britt denied Murphy-Brown’s request for a new trial in the third case, in which the jury awarded six plaintiffs an historic $475 million. (Britt reduced the amount to $94.5 million.) Britt also denied two other motions related to that case: One filed by Murphy-Brown to erase the punitive damages, and a second filed by the plaintiff’s attorneys to lift the cap on punitive damages, on constitutional grounds. 

[bctt tweet=”You’re damn right I get mad” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]

While the jury deliberated, 100 miles to the southeast, the air in Warsaw stunk. The water was clammy, and carried the acrid odor from nearby swine farms, waste lagoons and sprayfields, depositing it outside the REACH office on Ward’s Bridge Road.

Members of the community group REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help) and the Duke University Law and Policy Clinic were leading a bus tour of Duplin County affected by industrialized livestock operations: Not just hogs, but also poultry and cattle. Many of those on the tour, primarily environmental law students, had never witnessed, up close, anyway, enormous spray guns spewing geysers of waste onto fields — and the cows grazing on them.

(The former head of the EPA’s environmental justice program, Mustafa Santiago Ali was also on the tour, but he is well-acquainted with the issue.)

Until Friday, many had not seen a lagoon filled nearly to its berm. Many had not seen homes so close — a half-mile or less — to these enormous operations.

In winter when the fields and trees are brown, it’s easier to read the topography of Duplin County. Although it lies within the coastal plain — and thus the water table is high — the land isn’t completely flat. In some places, the gentle slopes and gulleys lead downhill from the sprayfields, where the feces- and urine-laden runoff collects in ditches and drains into creeks — even though the farms are permitted as “non-discharge” facilities.

“One thing that struck me,” said Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney at the Duke University Law and Policy Clinic, “is that several of the creeks had algae. It’s March. That shouldn’t be happening.”

Aside from the environmental pollution, as Farland testified in court, these farms, at least the one she lives next to, harm the neighbors. 

Born in 1971, Farland grew up near Rose Hill in Duplin County, in the house her parents built. Her mother, who was prone to seizures stayed home canned the garden bounty, raised the children, and quilted. Her father worked at National Spinning, then as a mechanic, until a transmission fell on him and he became disabled. He then turned to barbering, and set up a shop at the house.
The family of five grew row crops — tomatoes, okra, corn, field peas — as well as peaches in a small orchard behind their house— and raised chickens and hogs on the ground. In the summer, the Farlands took their watermelons to town, to Pender County, and sold them from the back of a truck. 

“It’s what we had to do to survive,” Farland told a federal jury last month.

Then when Farland turned 14, Murphy-Brown built the first stage of an industrialized hog farm just 600 feet from the family home. The property line, Farland testified, is just 33 feet from the kitchen door. 

Her father, who could not attend the hearing because he has cancer, started a neighborhood petition to stop the farm, helped by his children who helped him read and write letters. But, Farland told the jury, “no one came over and talked to us about the hog operation.”

Instead, over time Murphy-Brown kept building — three barns and thousands of hogs in all. “As they added on the smell got stronger and stronger,” Farland testified. 

When Joey Carter, the contract grower for Murphy-Brown, sprayed the hog waste on his fields, to be used as fertilizer, the mist “used to get on our house, our clothes,” Farland told the jury. “We had an old-timey washing machine and would hang the clothes on line. And the flies would get in. We had fly spray and a swatter in every room.”

Farland’s father has cancer and could not attend the trial. Her mother is also ill, and the acrid stench hampers her ability to breathe. The orchard is overgrown, the family hogs gone, Farland said, “because the entire neighborhood was told to stop growing hogs.”

“You have to deal with it,” Farland told the jury. “And you’re damn right I get mad.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.