- The world’s largest pork producer improperly disposed of massive amounts of hog waste in North Carolina, harming the environment and the health and property of nearby residents, many of whom are low income and people of color.
- Industrial-scale agriculture facilities have long taken advantage of inadequate regulation and weak enforcement, increasing their profits at the expense of significant environmental and public health harms.
- Residents sued the company to obtain compensation and to force it to better manage its waste.
- Arbitrary damage caps have greatly diminished the cases' deterrent effect. Corporate interests responded to these cases by pushing state legislators to pass laws that would deny victims meaningful access to the courts to bring similar cases to address future hog waste disposal problems.
North Carolina is the nation’s second-largest hog producing state, with about 2,300 farming operations raising more than 9 million hogs. Hog production has become highly industrialized, with the largest operations raising several thousand hogs at once. The largest pork producer in the world, the Chinese company WH Group, operates dozens of these larger facilities in North Carolina through its American-based subsidiary, Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods.[i] WH Group is one of the largest companies in the world, listed on the Fortune Global 500, and claiming reported revenues of more than $22 billion in 2017.[ii]
Most of North Carolina’s hog farms are located in the eastern part of the state, situated among rural communities with high rates of poverty.[iii] The number of African Americans living within three miles of the state’s industrial hog farms is 1.5 times greater than whites; the number of Latinos is 1.39 times greater, while the number Native Americans is 2.18 times greater.[iv]
These hog farms generate an enormous amount of manure and other waste. A 2008 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the 7.5 million hogs located in five North Carolina counties produced more than 15.5 million tons of feces every year.[v] While many aspects of industrialized production of hogs have become modernized and mechanized, the method of disposing of all of this waste remains shockingly antiquated. Even the largest farms simply put all this waste into large open-air pits, called “anaerobic lagoons.” There are an estimated 3,300 such anaerobic lagoons across North Carolina. Their contents are eventually liquefied and then sprayed onto open fields around the hog farms. Other forms of waste generated by these farms include the numerous dead hogs, which die prematurely due to disease or other causes.[vi]
People living near North Carolina’s industrial hog farms face a host of harms to their health and property as a result of all the waste the farms produce. The odors from the anaerobic lagoons, piles of decaying dead hogs, and open-field spraying attract flies, mosquitoes, mice, and other pest species that carry diseases. The stench can become so overwhelming that residents must remain indoors. Mists of feces and other biological waste from the lagoons and sprays carry on the wind and drift over onto nearby neighborhoods, where they coat houses, cars, and anything else that is located outdoors. Public health researchers have found links between air pollution from the farms and increased rates of nausea, respiratory illnesses, asthma, and elevated blood pressure.[vii]
Most of North Carolina’s hog farms are located in the eastern part of the state, situated among rural communities with high rates of poverty.
Weak or nonexistent regulations enable these awful conditions. Bedrock environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and Superfund, largely exempt agricultural activities from their pollution control and reporting programs. The increased prevalence of “contract farming” makes regulatory accountability and enforcement even more difficult. Under this relationship, large corporations such as WH Group contract with individual farms to produce livestock. The corporations dictate nearly every aspect of the production process but leave the problem of waste disposal to the farmer. Under these contracts, farmers operate on such a thin margin that they are strongly incentivized to use the cheapest means of waste disposal available.
In response to these harms, the neighbors of North Carolina’s mammoth hog farms have brought a series of lawsuits against Murphy-Brown. In all, nearly 500 residents have sued the company, alleging that the farms with which it has production contracts constitute a nuisance that prevents residents from enjoying the use of their property. The plaintiffs claim that because the farms continue to rely on anaerobic lagoons and open-field spraying to dispose of hog wastes, they have failed to take adequate measures to control the odors and fecal mists that drift into the surrounding areas. They further contend that even though modern technologies exist to control these impacts, the farms have unreasonably failed to use them.
The first of the trials concluded in April 2018 with a group of 10 residents prevailing in their claims against Murphy-Brown. The jury awarded these residents at total of $750,000 in compensation and another $50 million in punitive damages.[viii] In the second trial, the jury also found in favor of the plaintiffs, a couple that lives adjacent to another large hog production facility. They awarded the couple $130,000 in total compensation and another $25 million in punitive damages.[ix]
However, previous efforts by corporate interests to hobble civil justice in North Carolina are denying these plaintiffs meaningful justice for the harms they have suffered. A 1995 law in the state arbitrarily caps punitive damages at just three times the compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater. Consequently, the judge drastically reduced the total punitive damages awarded to the first group of plaintiffs to just $2.5 million.[x] The plaintiffs in the second trial face a similar scenario, with each likely receive only $315,000 each.
These arbitrary caps severely undercut the ability of the courts to provide justice in these cases. The large size of the punitive damages underscore the fundamentally reprehensible nature of Murphy-Brown’s actions, especially when considering how rarely juries grant punitive damages. Because these damages were drastically reduced, Murphy-Brown is able to escape any meaningful sanction for its deplorable indifference to the health and welfare of its neighbors. In addition, if the original awards were allowed to stand, they would have gone a long way toward pushing Murphy-Brown and other industrialized hog farm operators across North Carolina – and perhaps even across the United States – to finally bring their waste disposal practices into the 21st century. Without such an inducement, the communities that live adjacent to industrialized hog facilities will likely be forced to continue enduring the assault on health, property, and dignity that these facilities perpetrate.
While this arbitrary cap on punitive damages applies to most types of lawsuits in North Carolina, agricultural interests have sought to further insulate themselves from nuisance lawsuits. Following the large jury verdict in the first trial, the North Carolina legislature enacted – over the veto of Governor Roy Cooper – new legislation that would significantly shorten the statute of limitations and restrict the grounds on which these cases may be brought. Potential plaintiffs now must bring their lawsuits within one year after an agricultural facility made a “fundamental change” to its operations, a concept the law defines very narrowly. Moreover, it would bar punitive damages except in cases where the harms at issue arise from conduct that has resulted in either a criminal conviction or a regulatory violation.[xi]
The effect of this new legislation is to make punitive damages unavailable in nearly all cases. As a result, the potential awards available in many agricultural nuisance lawsuits would be so small that they would not be worth the expense of pursuing, effectively insulating large companies like WH Group against any liability for the environmental and public health harms their farms cause.
This case study illustrates each of the four themes connecting civil justice and a fair economy, and it demonstrates how progress on those fronts is hobbled by limits on meaningful citizen access to the courts. First, the world’s largest pork producer made a calculated choice to increase its profits through improper disposal of hog wastes, thereby forcing neighboring homeowners and the public to bear the costs of severe loss to their property, health, and environment. Unlike Murphy-Brown, the North Carolina residents neither should nor can bear these costs, particularly given that most of the communities already suffer high rates of poverty and racial inequality. The risk of substantial tort penalties, including punitive damages, can change this calculation to prevent such destructive and irresponsible business practices.
Second, the problems of inadequate waste disposal were in large part enabled by inadequate regulation of the public health and environmental impacts of industrialized agricultural operations.
Third, if civil courts were not burdened by arbitrary limits on their power in these cases, the jury awards would have provided more meaningful compensation and served as a better deterrence to pork producers using unacceptable waste disposal practice.
Fourth, legislators have responded to these cases by further limiting meaningful access to the courts for underserved communities seeking redress of the harms they have suffered.
[i] John Murawski, House Passes Limited Hog Farm Liability Bill, Raleigh News & Observer (N.C.), Apr. 10, 2017, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article143849889.html (last visited July 11, 2018); Anne Blythe, Jury Awards Hog Farm Neighbors $50 million, Raleigh News & Observer (N.C.), Apr. 26, 2018, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article209927914.html (last visited July 11, 2018); Anne Blythe, Think the Hog Farm Next Door Stinks? Lawmakers Limit Neighbors from Making a Big Stink in Court, Raleigh News & Observer (N.C.), June 14, 2018, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article213046124.html (last visited July 11, 2018).
[ii] Murawski, supra note 26; Emery P. Delasio, North Carolina Senate Acts to Limit Law That Allowed Pork Farm Verdict, Portland Press Herald (Me.), June 7, 2018, https://www.pressherald.com/2018/06/07/n-c-senate-acts-to-limit-law-that-allowed-pork-farm-verdict/ (last visited July 11, 2018).
[iii] U.N.C. School of Law, N.C. Poverty Statistics, http://www.law.unc.edu/centers/poverty/numbers/northcarolina/ (last visited July 11, 2018); John Murawski, NC Hog Farms Win Legal Protections; Senate Overrides Cooper’s Veto, Raleigh News & Observer (N.C.), May 11, 2017, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article150016642.html (last visited July 11, 2018).
[iv] Erica Hellerstein & Ken Fine, A Million Tons of Feces and an Unbearable Stench: Life Near Industrial Pig Farms, Guardian, Sept. 20, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/20/north-carolina-hog-industry-pig-farms (last visited July 11, 2018).
[v] U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, GAO-08-944, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: EPA Needs More Information and a Clearly Defined Strategy to Protect Air and Water Quality from Pollutants of Concern 5 (2008), available at https://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08944.pdf.
[vi] Hellerstein & Fine, supra note 29; Anne Blythe, Hog Farmers Win New Protections as Lawmakers Override Roy Cooper’s Veto, Raleigh News & Observer (N.C.), June 27, 2018, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article213914154.html (last visited July 11, 2018).
[vii] Hellerstein & Fine, supra note 29; Blythe, Think the Hog Farm Next Door Stinks?, supra note 26.
[viii] Emery P. Delasio, Jury Hits Pork Giant for $50M for Hog Operation’s Nuisance, Seattle Times, Apr. 26, 2018, https://www.seattletimes.com/business/jury-hits-pork-giant-for-50m-for-hog-operations-nuisance/ (last visited July 11, 2018); Blythe, Jury Awards Hog Farm Neighbors, supra note 26.
[ix] Anne Blythe, Jury Awards More Than $25 million to Duplin County Couple in Hog-Farm Case, Raleigh News & Observer (N.C.), June 29, 2018, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article214096384.html (last visited July 11, 2018).
[x] Anne Blythe, A Jury Awarded Hog Farm Neighbors $50 million. A Judge Reduced the Award Dramatically., Raleigh News & Observer (N.C.), May 11, 2017, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article210747979.html (last visited July 11, 2018).
[xi] Delasio, supra note 27; Blythe, Think the Hog Farm Next Door Stinks?, supra note 26; Blythe, supra note 34.