A federal jury has ordered Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork producer, to pay $473.5 million to the North Carolina residents who neighbor its factory farms.
Residents sued the company for the “unreasonable nuisances” caused by the large-scale factory farming. This included odors, flies, and noise pollution from trucks entering and leaving the premises of the three industrial-scale hog farms.
In August, a federal jury ruled in the residents’ favor. The jury noted in particular that Smithfield Foods failed to contain the “obnoxious, recurrent odors and other causes of noises” and criticised the company for the state of the farms. Following the lawsuit, the company decided to shutter its Clayton, North Carolina meat distribution facility, which will permanently close in October.
There are so many animals on these farms, packed together to maximize profit, that the farms are “generat[ing] many times more sewage than entire towns.” One neighbor compared the smell to that of rotting corpses, saying that he was driven out of his home due to the intolerable stench.
Owing to this, the jury awarded $23.5 million in compensatory damages and $450 million in punitive damages, which state law will reduce to $94 million.
This is not the first lawsuit of this kind. This most recent decision follows two prior cases, which saw the juries award punitive damages of $75 million (though those amounts were also reduced).
Consequently, legislators are concerned about protecting the economic interests vested in animal agriculture. North Carolina legislators accordingly implemented barriers against nuisance lawsuits, which, according to The Associated Press, “all but eliminate the ability of neighbors to sue Smithfield Foods or any other agribusiness.”
This sparked much debate, with critics calling the barriers an upheaval of private property rights in order to protect the “well-heeled” animal agriculture industry.
However, US Rep David Rouzer warned: “Today’s nuisance lawsuits that are destroying livelihoods and communities in North Carolina are the tip of the iceberg for what is to come absent a well-informed public and good public policy. This is a very slippery slope that threatens the very existence of every form of agriculture nationwide.”
While those profiting from the farming industry called Friday’s decision unjust, environmentalists say that the ruling was necessary and justified.
Cassive Gavin, a lobbyist with the North Carolina Sierra Club, explained, “These juries are repeatedly seeing problems with the kind of waste management that’s used. Clearly it’s time for the state and the industry to take a hard look at their waste management and modernize it so the public is protected.”