North Carolina is the third largest producer of pork in the country, and that means a lot of hog farms. Those hog farms have neighbors. Sometimes those neighbors file what are called nuisance suits. But under a bill in the legislature, there could be new restrictions attached to those lawsuits. Penalties against hog and chicken farms would be limited to lost rental or property value because of the nearby farm.
Those who live near concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs complain about the smell of feces, urine, and particulate matter in the air. Those strong odors, in the legal realm, are nuisances, and residents have a right to take legal action against the cause of that nuisance.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the law would affect tens of thousands of residential property owners who live near a CAFO. That includes dozens of properties in Brunswick and Pender counties.
Craig Cox is the senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group.
“What the house and senate proposed bills would do, is severely limit the amount and kind of compensation that property owners could legally receive if an operation was creating a nuisance that was affecting their ability to enjoy their property.”
So EWG conducted a computer mapping analysis, using geospatial data for the location of factory farms and digitized residential boundary maps from county tax assessors. The result is an interactive map that lets people see how close they live to CAFOs or the open-air pits that store liquid manure from millions of swine.
As originally written, HB 467 would have also applied retroactively to pending cases – including 26 lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, which is now the hog production division of Smithfield Foods. Smithfield is the big player in the state's swine industry, and owned by the WH Group of China. An amendment to remove the bill's application to pending cases passed the House, but the provision currently is in the Senate bill.
Again, Craig Cox.
“The reason we did this was that this bill was moving quickly through the North Carolina legislature and no one seems to have paused to think about how many property owners would lose their rights under this legislation…”
The North Carolina Pork Council supports the legislation, according to council CEO Andy Curliss.
“Our farmers and others across the state really do seek certainty about what types of damages could be awarded in nuisance lawsuits.”
That’s why the bill was written, according to Republican Representative Ted Davis of New Hanover County, one of its sponsors.
He says confusion led a judge hearing the cases to hold them up.
“To make a long story short, he made the statement that North Carolina law is not clear on the availability of annoyance and discomfort damages in temporary nuisance actions.”
“So he put a hold on it, and nothing has been done with the cases since then.”
Davis says the legislation should simplify things for both plaintiffs and defendants.
“So what this bill does is to try and establish legislation that will define the extent of the damages that a plaintiff can get in a temporary or permanent nuisance case.”
Curliss says if citizens believe that CAFOs have caused health issues, they can still take legal action. It just won’t be as a nuisance suit.
“Now it is important to make clear this doesn’t affect other types of lawsuits that anyone can bring – negligence, personal injury, trespass, or other types of torts. This really is just focused narrowly on nuisance lawsuits.”
Several states have passed similar legislation.
Hog farmers approached in Rocky Point chose not to discuss this bill on the record.
It is currently with the committee on Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources.
EWG Interactive Map