RALEIGH — North Carolina farmers got a breath of fresh air this week from North Carolina legislators, followed by a sharp blow by the court system.
On Thursday, the state’s legislators affirmed the importance of reins on nuisance lawsuits neighbors may bring against the state’s farmers or the large industries they supply by passing a bill that put further restrictions on the suits.
“This is a lawyer’s bill,” North Carolina Rep. William Brisson (R-Bladen) said recently. “We’ve spent millions of dollars getting regulations on air quality and water quality, and this firm from Texas comes and tells people, ‘We’ll get you some money. You don’t have to do anything.’ This firm worked in Iowa doing the same thing and then moved to North Carolina, because we’re near the top in the country with hog production.
“They came in and stirred people up about nuisance laws, which is why we needed this legislation,” he added.
Last year’s Farm Bill limited the amount of compensation to which neighbors of farms may be entitled in nuisance lawsuits, restricting damages to lost rental or property value that can be directly attributed to the nearby farm.
Last’s week’s decision put further restrictions on nuisance claims, limiting when punitive damages can be awarded. Lawsuits cannot be filed unless done within one year of the establishment of a forestry to agriculture operation or within one year of what legislators are calling a “fundamental change.” Changes in size, ownership, or products, for example, do not constitute “fundamental change.” Additionally, punitive damages cannot be awarded unless a farm operator has previously been issued a notice of a regulatory infraction.
Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, saying our “laws must balance the needs of businesses versus property rights. Giving one industry special treatment at the expense of its neighbors is unfair.”
Despite the governor’s viewpoint, both the House (74-45) and the Senate (37-9) overrode the action, with Congress members voting mainly along party lines.
The governor’s actions didn’t sit well with at least one Bladen County farm owner.
“I’m disappointed in the governor, because I feel like he doesn’t value the 140,000-plus jobs the agriculture industry contributes to the state,” said HD3 Farms of the Carolinas owner Dean Hilton. “We’re throwing tax dollars at Apple and Amazon when we already have 140,000 jobs with good, hardworking citizens doing a job that’s at the heart of all of southeastern North Carolina.”
Bladen County’s congressional representatives — Brisson (House -R), Brenden Jones (House -R) and Bill Rabon (Senate -R) — all voted to override Cooper’s veto.
The big blow
While legislators gave the nod to the agriculture industry, the court system dealt another blow to farms and the corporations they supply on Friday, when a jury found the Joey Carter farm, a Murphy Brown, LLC supplier, to be a nuisance and awarded $130,000 in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
“Today my family is heart broken on the verdict of being considered a nuisance to a small few of our neighbors,” said Matthew Carter, son of Joey Carter. “For 33 years, we have been proud of what we call Joey Carter Farms. We build it according to all state and federal laws, and my dad Joey built it with his own hands. We have never had any violations with the state or complaints from our neighbors, and for that we are thankful.”
“Very few people have complained about hog farms for 21 years — until this firm came along — because the regulations work when they’re followed. Some farmers may not follow the rules, and that creates problems, but the regulations are good,” Brisson said.
The lack of complaints from neighbors is one that has many farmers crying foul.
“Let’s not forget how I understand these lawsuits started,” Hilton said recently, “with out-of-state lawyers going door-to-door, promising big paydays to neighbors who were willing to sue the hog farm down the street.
He added, “Indeed, from the start, these cases have been about one thing — money. Need proof? The plaintiffs are not suing for any changes to be made to any farm. They just seek money.”
Approximately 120 farms, along with their parent corporations, are being put on trial, and 25 of them and will be heard one by one, with the third scheduled to begin July 9 in federal court in Raleigh. Juries sided with the plaintiffs in the first two.
“All of agriculture is on trail,” Hilton remarked, “and the outcome of these lawsuits affects all of us across the state, especially in rural North Carolina. These lawsuits affect every farm family who raises pigs, chicken, cattle or crops. They affect every employee who makes their living on a farm. They affect every local business that sells farm equipment, supplies, and fuel to the farmers in their community.”
According to North Carolina law, farms are legal nuisances if they interfere “unreasonably” and “substantially” with the use and enjoyment of neighbors’ property.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.