It’s one thing to read in the scientific literature about the negative consequences of industrial swine production on nearby residents (e.g., here, here). It’s quite different to learn about the situation by reading documents from a lawsuit. The descriptions of the odor emanating from manure-filled lagoons was disgusting. I’ve read about confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), but descriptions of fly infestations at people’s residences and the “dead boxes” where dead hogs are stacked and rot until eventually picked up by “dead trucks,” was new to me.
Residents of Pearl Lloyd Road in White Oak, North Carolina and several neighbors were successful earlier this month in their lawsuit against against Murphy-Brown, the pork-processing subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Smithfield is owned by WH Group, a Chinese-based firm that is the largest hog producer in the world. WH Group’s profit in 2017 was more than $1 billion US dollars. Murphy Brown reports that it brings more than 16 million hogs annually to market. It operates about 450 of its own farms and contracts with an additional 2,000 growers to raise swine.
The ten White Oak residents filed a complaint in federal court against Murphy-Brown for its contracted operation at Kinlaw Farms. The Kinlaw Farms’ CAFO houses about 15,000 hogs. It butts up against some of the White Oak residents’ property.
The original complaint notes that Mrs. Joyce McKiver, 81, has lived on her property for more than 50 years. She planned to leave it to her family upon her death. Now it’s decreased in value because of the CAFO next door.
The other plaintiffs have the same concern. They also just can’t enjoy their property. Who wants to work out in the yard or have a BBQ when there’s always a putrid odor outside? They are forced to keep their windows and doors closed, use scented candles, buy air purifiers, and more to tolerate the smell. I can imagine that some days, it is unbearable. One of the plaintiffs, Mr. Archie Wright, grew up on a farm. He told the court that he’s familiar with the typical odors from farm animals. The CAFO’s smell is not a normal farm smell, he said, it is “far more rancid.”
Here are some excerpts from the residents’ original complaint:
“The defendant’s hogs generate feces and urine that fall onto slatted floors and adhere to hog bodies, dry into particulate dust, adhere to skin cells from pigs, and drip and trickle under the slatted floor into holding ponds below the floors that hold raw feces and urine.”
“The urine and feces go into giant holding ponds outdoors from which it evaporates and may leak and spill. Because Murphy-Brown does not cover the cesspools they are free to evaporate odor into the air and attract flies.
“The slurry or liquid containing the urine and feces is also sprayed into the air and onto fields around the hog sheds causing odorous fecal and urinous mist to drift through the air, go onto neighboring lands, and moisture and matter to fall and puddle on the soil so that more odor rises off of it. …Murphy-Brown refuses to truck manure away by tanker truck although it has the capacity to do so.”
“The use of the outmoded ‘lagoon and sprayfield’ system has been banned for new farms in North Carolina for years, and many measures exist to reduce the nuisance from existing facilities. Defendant has the means and ability to correct the nuisance but has failed to do so negligently and improperly.”
The trial began on April 3, 2018 and after 18 days of testimony, the jury found in favor of Mrs. McKiver and her neighbors. The first question they were charged with answering was:
Did the defendant substantially and unreasonably interfere with the plaintiffs use and enjoyment of his or her property?
They unanimously answered: Yes. The jury concluded that each plaintiff should receive $75,000 for damages.
The second question they were charged with answering was:
Is the defendant liable to the plaintiff for punitive damages?”
They unanimously answered: Yes. The jury concluded that each plaintiff should receive $5,000,000 for punitive damages.
The jury verdict form is here (and the judge’s instructions are here.)
Smithfield Foods called the verdict an “outrageous attack on all animal agriculture.”
WH Group’s 2017 annual report, notes that Murphy Brown has 26 pending lawsuits from residents of other communities affected by hog CAFOs. They tell investors,
“[we] believe that the claims are unfounded and intends to defend the suits vigorously.”
The jurors’ decision in favor of Mrs. McKiver and her neighbors should set off alarms at the WH Group. Rather than spending millions to defend these lawsuits, the company should invest in the necessary buildings and equipment to manage their industrial waste.
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