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Federal Court Grants Summary Judgment For Murphy-Brown in New Hog Farm Litigation

Updated: Aug 30


Image of hogs in confined operation by United Soybean Board
Image of hogs in confined operation by United Soybean Board

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A federal district court in North Carolina recently granted summary judgment in favor of Murphy-Brown, LLC, regarding negligence and trespass claims brought by neighbors of a hog farm that contracts with Murphy-Brown. This litigation had been watched by those of us following right-to-farm law developments since it utilized many of the same theories we might see in a nuisance case that would allow the operation to use the defense in the right-to-farm law, with claims grounded in trespass and negligence. In most cases, right-to-farm laws do not provide defenses for trespass and negligence claims. The decision is in Barden v. Murphy-Brown, LLC, No. 7:20-CV-85-D (E.D. N. Car., Aug. 16, 2023).


Background


I have previously written on this litigation here. Seventeen residents near Vestal Farms, a hog farm in North Carolina, brought suit against Murphy-Brown, LLC. This livestock production company provides pork to Smithfield Foods. Circle K II, Inc. owns Vestal Farms and contracts with Murphy-Brown to grow hogs. The neighbors alleged that Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods caused the noise, dust, liquid, and dead animal parts to enter the plaintiffs’ properties. The plaintiffs alleged trespass, negligence, civil conspiracy, and unjust enrichment. In a prior decision, the court had dismissed the civil conspiracy and unjust enrichment claims. Murphy-Brown brought a motion for summary judgment on the negligence and trespass claims.


Court’s Decision


Looking at the trespass claims, the federal court highlights that in North Carolina, to show trespass to real property, the plaintiff must prove:

  1. Possession of the real property at the time of the trespass by the plaintiff;

  2. The defendant’s entry into the real property was unauthorized; and

  3. As a result of the trespass, the plaintiff has damages.

The court highlights that Murphy-Brown argues that the neighbors have done little to demonstrate that Murphy-Brown has caused any intrusion on the neighbors’ properties. The defendants also highlight that the neighbors have offered no expert evidence to link the Vestal Farms to the trespasses complained of by the neighbors. The neighbors argued that they were not required to produce expert testimony evidence because they had seen liquid and muck coming off Murphy-Brown’s trucks as the trucks went down the road.


At the same time, the court highlights that many neighbors had not found any traces of particles from Vestal Farms on the neighbors’ properties. Others testified to detectable substances on their properties from the Vestal Farms. The judge agrees that the neighbors have failed to produce sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact that Murphy-Brown caused substances to enter the neighbors’ properties. To the court, the evidence was speculation, and there was no real direct evidence that the Vestal Farms caused substances to enter the neighbors’ properties.


Picture of hog snout by Alex Lafayette via University of Arkansas
Picture of hog snout by Alex Lafayette via University of Arkansas

Looking at the sources, they have yet to demonstrate that the dust complained of came from the Vestal Farms and not other sources in the area. With the spraying, the neighbors never identified any substances they claim trespassed onto their properties. Looking at all the evidence in the most favorable light to the neighbors, the neighbors failed to show a trespass occurred.


The court also rejects claims by the neighbors that other hog operations affiliated with Murphy-Brown in the area. The amended complaint only alleges the Vestal Farms and the court does not allow the neighbors to include more farms to avoid summary judgment. The court grants summary judgment in favor of Murphy-Brown on the trespassing issue.


The court then turns to the negligence issue brought up by the neighbors. The negligence claim relies on the same evidence as the trespass claims. The neighbors failed to present non-speculative evidence that would support a negligence claim. The court also grants summary judgment on the negligence claim. The court does not address right-to-farm issues brought up by the parties because of this dismissal on summary judgment.

Why Care?


This litigation had been interesting to watch because of the use of trespass and negligence claims to circumvent the amended right-to-farm law in North Carolina. If you remember, there had been a large settlement with neighbors by Murphy-Brown for nuisance claims in late 2020. This new litigation came on the heels of changes to North Carolina’s right-to-farm law in response to that nuisance suit. This new litigation utilized trespass and negligence claims that the state’s right-to-farm law would not protect.

This may not be the last word in this litigation; the neighbors could appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but it is unknown if they will. This decision does not shut down future litigation on this front but shows the bar courts will be setting in determining if a farm’s odors and dust rise to trespass and negligence against neighbors.


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