First among the rules of trial court is to know the answer coming before asking the question.
No way under the sun could any of us imagined every answer, every ruling and every break thus far in three nuisance cases between plaintiffs and Smithfield Foods going in favor of Texas lawyer Michael Kaeske. Judge Earl Britt, the octogenarian who once practiced in Fairmont and Lumberton before a 1977 appointment to the bench by President Jimmy Carter, has presided over each of the trials and is expected to remain a thorn in the side of farmers.
Kaeske’s plan, no matter how badly we feel the sting or how disgusted we are by his actions, is masterful. He’s crafted a script that sends in the underdog, is played out away from the defendants’ home turf, and is in front of an audience of 12 that will only know what he repeatedly hammers home – be it truthful or not exactly.
Neighbors turned plaintiffs lived beside these farms for years. In some cases they once lived elsewhere and moved back – hog farm nearby and all.
Litigation wasn’t a thought. Waving at neighbors as they went to work on those farms, talking to them at the store – this was country life and all was fine.
Kaeske’s plan, possibly yet to be profitable to his company despite law-capped judgments of millions over the three victories, plays the socioeconomic card more than once.
Best most people can tell, the plaintiffs he’s picked are not in the upper tax brackets. In a courtroom of the underdog, the less one has the more compassion a jury is likely to show. The man from the Lone Star State has come galloping in offering promises of fortune, painting a picture of not harming the farmers and instead going after Smithfield Foods.
Corporate rather than farmer as defendant removes the state court system from the equation. Federal court adds a planned bonus.
Cases are heard by a jury of peers, or so the spirit of the law suggests. But there’s little comparison of a dozen people in Pender County hearing this case with a dozen in Wake County, where northerners have been migrating for decades and where high tech — not agriculture — is the trend.
To agree there is nuisance, they don’t even have to put themselves in the plaintiffs’ shoes. Britt repeatedly, and we believe wrongly, denies any request by defendants for jurors to go to the farms.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis understands the damage done and potentially on the horizon. He’s requesting hearings by the Senate Agriculture and Judiciary committees. McGuireWoods, the respected international firm representing the defendants, needs better strategy to halt the trend absent any congressional intervention.
Farmers, and their communities that will feel the reverberations for years, deserve a better fate.