The punitive damages for the ten plaintiffs who recently won their case against pork giant Murphy-Brown
have been reduced from $50 million to $3.25 million, according to a decision filed today by U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt. The decision means that each plaintiff involved in the litigation will now receive $325,0000, a small fraction of the original $5.075 million judgment handed down to each plaintiff by the jury several weeks ago.
Britt's decision to impose a cap on punitive damages came after a jury handed down a landmark verdict to the ten plaintiffs suing Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. The case was one of twenty-six federal lawsuits filed against the company over the stenches produced by the waste-management practices of commercial hog farms. It focused on a hog operation in Bladen County that contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise its pigs. After nearly a month-long trial, the jurors awarded each of the ten plaintiffs $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
However, as the INDY explained
last week, attorneys for Murphy-Brown argued that state law limits the amount of punitive damages the plaintiffs could receive and appealed the amount on the basis of a 1995 law that caps punitive damages to three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000.
Although the N.C
. Supreme Court upheld the law in 2004, attorneys representing the plaintiffs argued
that the punitive damages cap as applied in this case was unconstitutional (you can read more about their legal argument here
The law capping punitive damages was introduced in 1994 by Republican state representative Charles Neely and was pushed by the N.C
. Citizens for Business and Industry, a coalition of the state's largest companies. As a lobbyist explained at the time, the bill was aimed at preventing "frivolous lawsuits that are intended to frighten businesses" into settling.