Federal Judge Allows New Lawsuit to Continue Against Smithfield and Murphy-Brown
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Late in 2020, we had a North Carolina Hog Farm Litigation settlement that ended several lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown, LLC and Smithfield Foods. In May 2020, neighboring landowners filed a new set of federal lawsuits against Murphy-Brown and Smithfield, the same defendants in the prior lawsuits. Similar to the previous lawsuits, neighbors sued the companies that the farms grow for, not the actual hog farms themselves. In these lawsuits, the neighbors used legal theories based on trespass and negligence and not around nuisance. Recently, the federal judge hearing the lawsuit allowed it to continue and ruled the state’s right-to-farm law did not apply, though providing a defense in this case to the trespass and negligence claims. The judge also dismissed two other claims brought by the neighbors.
In May 2020, a group of neighbors brought legal action against Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods for hogs located at Vestal Farm in North Carolina. 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 claims of trespass, negligence, civil conspiracy, and unjust enrichment. Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods moved to dismiss the claims.
Before we get into the court’s decision, it is essential to remember that right-to-farm laws provide a defense in a lawsuit involving the tort of nuisance. In their motion to dismiss, Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods argued that North Carolina’s right-to-farm law barred the plaintiffs’ claims. Defendants argued that the plaintiffs’ negligence and trespass claims were disguised nuisance claims, which the right-to-farm law defends against. The plaintiffs argued that lawsuits were non-nuisance-based, and the state’s right-to-farm law did not preclude the claims.
For those who remember, the plaintiffs proceeded with nuisance claims in the prior hog farm litigation. At that time, the court held that the state’s right-to-farm law did not apply to those nuisance claims. In 2018, North Carolina updated the right-to-farm law to provide a defense in lawsuits such as the hog farm litigation, as pointed out in a recent court ruling. Find more here (https://agrilife.org/texasaglaw/2020/12/07/appellate-court-affirms-liability-in-north-carolina-nuisance-case-smithfield-announces-settlement/).
Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods argued that the right-to-farm law should be construed to provide a defense to these non-nuisance claims. The defendants argued that others had construed their right-to-farm laws to include trespass claims. The court found a significant distinction between those states and North Carolina. Notably, the state’s right-to-farm law includes the following, that the law “does not apply to any cause of action brought against an agricultural or forestry operation for negligence, trespass, personal injury, strict liability, or other cause of action for tort liability other than nuisance . . .” (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-702(d)). The statute’s language was plain to the court, and the North Carolina right-to-farm law did not provide a defense to non-nuisance claims.
The court next turned to claims that the plaintiffs had failed to state a lawsuit related to trespass and negligence. The court found that, at a minimum, the plaintiffs had stated trespass claims. Plaintiffs had alleged that the companies owned and controlled hogs near the plaintiffs’ properties and had shown that dust and other wastes had entered these properties, which affected their use and enjoyment of the properties, although the plaintiffs had never agreed to this.
Turning to the plaintiffs’ negligence claims, the court also found at a minimum, the plaintiffs had stated negligence claims. Plaintiffs alleged the two companies had a duty based on their involvement in the farm’s operation in question and the hogs’ management. The court found it could be foreseeable that if the companies did not act reasonably regarding the farm’s waste management system, this could lead to issues with the neighbors’ properties.
The court dismissed a few of the plaintiffs’ claims, namely civil conspiracy and unjust enrichment. We won’t go into those claims because they were dismissed. Like the prior hog farm litigation, the court did not require the farm owners included in the litigation.
Although we might have thought this litigation ended with the settlement announced in late 2020, the plaintiffs have found a new avenue to sue in North Carolina. As mentioned, the plaintiffs’ prior litigation acknowledged on appeal that the changes made in 2018 would prevent similar nuisance suits as their initial suit. The North Carolina legislature did not update § 106-702(d) in 2016; it appears from the legislative history that this might be another area for the legislature to consider updating to prevent these types of future lawsuits, but nothing has been said so far.
States such as California, Indiana, and Texas have found their right-to-farm laws provide a defense against trespass claims. Maryland’s right-to-farm law similarly does not limit such claims to only nuisance claims, as does North Carolina’s. Because Maryland’s right-to-farm law requires mediation on a local level, we do not have reported cases to show that the law would or would not provide a defense in a similar claim of trespass.
One area that Maryland’s law that is similar to North Carolina’s law is that it does not provide a defense when the agricultural operation is managed negligently. In Maryland, a producer would not be able to utilize the right-to-farm defense when the claim is the operation was negligently operated in a way to cause odors and other issues for neighboring landowners.
This recent decision is an interesting development and producers should pay attention to it We may see an appeal in this decision, but even that may not be the last word on this issue.
Barden v. Murphy-Brown, LLC, 7:20-CV-85-BR, 2021 WL 965915 (E.D. N.C. March 15, 2021).