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North Carolina Legislature Limits Nuisance Lawsuits, Reducing Potential Liability for Hog Farming Industry

Overriding a gubernatorial veto, on May 11 the North Carolina legislature significantly limited the liability of hog farms in any future nuisance lawsuits. See 2017 N.C. Sess. Laws 11. The new law caps the compensatory damages that may be awarded to a plaintiff bringing a private nuisance action to either the reduction in fair market value of a property, if the nuisance is permanent, or to the diminution of the property’s fair rental value, if the nuisance is temporary.

North Carolina has the second-largest hog farming industry in the country,  with operations valued at more than $1 billion. As a result, approximately 4,000 hog waste lagoons are located across the state, grandfathered into operation under a 2007 moratorium that bans construction of new lagoons. In 2014, two dozen lawsuits involving more than 500 plaintiffs were filed against Murphy-Brown LLC, a Smithfield Foods subsidiary, alleging that some of the company’s lagoon-utilizing farms created a nuisance for neighboring homes and seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief.

In response, Representative John R. Bell, the House Majority Leader, introduced House Bill 467, seeking to protect hog farmers (as well as other agricultural or forestry operations in the state) by limiting liability in nuisance cases. The bill was sent to the Governor’s desk, but was vetoed out of concern that “[s]pecial protection for one industry opens the door to weakening [the state’s] nuisance laws in other areas.” The House and Senate voted to overturn the veto less than a week later.

Under the new law, total damages that can be awarded to any plaintiff or successor in interest are capped at the fair market value of the property, regardless of the defendant against which damages are sought. Once a plaintiff has recovered damages equivalent to the property value, further nuisance claims, even against additional defendants, are barred. However, the law was amended to only apply to lawsuits filed after the date of enactment, after bipartisan concern that the legislative branch was overstepping into judicial branch territory, particularly in regards to the Murphy-Brown litigation.

In 2011, the governor of Missouri vetoed a Republican-backed bill that would have limited punitive damages in litigation against corporate hog farms, but legislation limiting compensatory damages was signed in 2012. This March, the Iowa state government also passed legislation creating a new “public interest” affirmative defense, and capping special compensatory damages in animal feeding lot nuisance litigation.

By Katelin Shugart-Schmidt

© 2020 Beveridge & Diamond PC National Law Review, Volume VII, Number 254

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About this Author

Graham C. Zorn Environmental, Toxic Tort, Products Liability Litigation Attorney Beveridge & Diamond Washington, DC
Principal

Graham Zorn focuses his practice on environmental, toxic tort, and products liability litigation.

His representative experience includes extensive work on a series of complex products liability and toxic tort cases related to alleged groundwater, and litigation over lead in drinking water. He has represented individual businesses, trade associations, and municipalities in litigation, as well as in compliance, enforcement, and counseling matters involving the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, CERCLA and other state and federal environmental statutes. He also counsels domestic and...

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Eric L. Klein Environmental Litigation Attorney Beveridge & Diamond Boston, MA
Principal

Eric makes complex subjects simpler.

He is an environmental litigator in the Boston office of Beveridge & Diamond, with a national practice representing major companies and municipalities in a wide variety of matters including environmental and mass torts, class actions, and federal citizen suits under environmental statutes including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. He has handled cases in state and federal courts throughout the United States, litigating complex civil and commercial matters before juries, trial and appellate courts, arbitrators and administrative tribunals. He specializes in challenging and defending technical experts in complex environmental litigation.

Eric’s litigation practice encompasses a broad range of environmental matters, including the prosecution and defense of groundwater and site contamination cases, PCB cost allocations, environmental white-collar defense and internal investigations, and data compensation under FIFRA, the federal pesticide statute. In particular, Eric has defended some of the most significant environmental citizen suits filed in recent times, including the successful resolution of a $4 trillion Clean Water Act citizen suit filed against a major U.S. transportation company.

As a second-year law student, Eric argued before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who recognized Eric with "Best Oralist" and "Best Brief" awards. Following law school, Eric clerked for the Honorable Robert I. Richter at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. He also serves as co-chair of B&D’s Pro Bono Committee and maintains an active pro bono practice, specializing in defending tenants in eviction actions. 

Eric’s core professional belief spans his careers in education and law: success lies in making complex subjects simpler.

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