This op-ed originally ran in the Raleigh News & Observer.
The civil justice system in North Carolina exists to protect people and their property from unreasonable actions by others. One of the longest standing causes of action in civil courts is for nuisance claims, which allow you to bring suit when your neighbor creates a condition on their property that interferes with your ability to use and enjoy your property, such as excessive noise, poorly stored garbage that might attract vermin or foul odors.
Yet, House Bill 467, which is being fast-tracked through the legislature, would prevent hundreds of rural landowners from recovering more than token damages even if a court were to decide that the corporations responsible for factory farming have committed just such a nuisance.
Nuisance suits are already limited to addressing conditions that are unreasonable for the area where they occur. They also protect pre-existing businesses, such as farms, from suits by people who “come to the nuisance” and then take issue with their surroundings. In rural agricultural areas, some noise, dust and smells are expected and reasonable; our state’s Right to Farm Act adds additional protections for farmers from being sued over such typical agricultural impacts on neighbors. So why eliminate damages for landowners that prove a nuisance which does not involve a typical agriculture impact?
The timing of HB 467 is suspicious because it would affect a nuisance lawsuit already filed by hundreds of landowners against an international corporate hog producer who they claim has harmed them and their property. While a court will have to determine the extent of these damages, we do know the impact of high density livestock businesses on their neighbors has been substantially more harmful than that caused by traditional agriculture.