Throughout the defense of House Bill 467, the controversial hog-farm protection bill that recently became law despite Governor Cooper's veto, the bill's supporters argued that hardworking family farmers need to be protected from avaricious attorneys.
Court documents, including a federal judge's ruling last week, call into question the sincerity of this argument.
As the INDY has previously reported, HB 467 caps the amount of damages that property owners living near "agriculture and forestry operations," including hog farms, can collect in nuisance lawsuits. Under the bill, people can only collect damages equal to the reduction in their property's fair market value.
Much of the debate over HB 467 focused on twenty-six pending federal nuisance lawsuits filed by roughly five hundred people against Murphy-Brown, the pork-producing subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. An early version would have essentially nullified these lawsuits, though this provision was stricken from the version that ultimately passed the House and Senate.
Most of the farms cited in the lawsuits are owned and operated by independent contractors who work with Murphy-Brown. The lawsuits, however, are not filed against those local farmers, only Murphy-Brown. However, those farmers nonetheless loomed large among supporters of HB 467.
"They want to sue farmers for outrageous sums without having to prove real damages," state representative and bill sponsor Jimmy Dixon wrote in an April 7 op-ed in The News & Observer. "... This bill is designed to protect 50,000 hardworking North Carolina farmers who are feeding a hungry world."
But court records show that Murphy-Brown actually filed a motion to add some of those family farmers as defendants in four of the twenty-six cases.
According to a memorandum filed by Murphy-Brown in September 2016, "allowing these cases to go forward without the landowners forces Murphy-Brown to defend the location of the farms, the management of the farms, and the farms' compliance with any number of North Carolina statutes and regulations—all matters that are indisputably the legal obligation of the permit holders."
In other words, Murphy-Brown is saying that those farmers the bill's supporters are defending should be part of the lawsuits—and potentially liable for damages—because they're responsible for the alleged nuisance, not Murphy-Brown. Or, in legalese, "because they have several significant interests in the outcome of this litigation, and those interests would be severely compromised by a finding of nuisance."
On Thursday, Judge W. Earl Britt rejected Murphy-Brown's motion.
This article appeared in print with the headline "+DEFENDING WHO FROM WHOM?"