Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt ruled that the twenty-six federal nuisance lawsuits filed against the pork giant Murphy-Brown LLC can finally go to trial—an important turning point in a high-profile and potentially game-changing case in a state where hog farming is serious business.
The lawsuits were filed by more than five hundred plaintiffs living near Murphy-Brown's industrial hog farms in eastern North Carolina. The neighbors contend that the farms' waste-management systems, which consist of storing excess excrement in massive open-air cesspools and liquifying and spraying the remaining waste onto nearby fields, negatively affect their health and quality of life. They argue that Murphy-Brown's multibillion-dollar parent company, Smithfield Foods, has the resources to manage the pigs' waste in a way that minimizes the odor and nuisance to nearby property owners.
The issue gained notoriety this spring after state Representative Jimmy Dixon, a pork-friendly Republican from Duplin County who has received more than $100,000 from the industry through his political career, introduced a bill that capped the amount of money that property owners living near hog farms could collect in nuisance lawsuits. (Dixon argued that the law should be applied retroactively, essentially nullifying the twenty-six federal lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, but that provision was removed from the final bill.) In May, after the legislature overrode Governor Cooper's veto, the bill became law.
Judge Britt's thirty-three-page ruling dealt with various motions filed by Murphy-Brown. Per the company's request, he agreed to seal various documents and to hear a motion that would separate the trials on December 4.
But he rejected Murphy-Brown's argument that North Carolina's right-to-farm law would protect the company's farms from nuisance litigation. In total, he wholly denied eight of the company's sixteen motions, and denied two others in part.