A group of rural North Carolinians prevailed in court this April against Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Chinese-owned global food giant Smithfield Foods. The landmark case concerned the stench of waste lagoons at the company’s 15,000-hog facility in Bladen County. The jury initially awarded each of the 10 plaintiffs $75,000 in compensatory damages and a whopping $5 million in punitive damages. However, under a North Carolina law that limits punitive damages to three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater, the final award was reduced to $325,000 each.
The lagoons contain millions of gallons of hog feces, attracting swarms of flies and putting nearby residents at risk of environmental contamination and health problems. The plaintiffs argued that the company’s current disposal method, which has remained unchanged since the 1990s, should have been updated as technology changed to minimize odors. The lagoon disposal method entails flushing hog waste into a pit, allowing bacteria to break down the material, and spraying it onto nearby agricultural fields.
This case was only the first in a series of 26 federal lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown hog farms. Not satisfied with slashing punitive damages, North Carolina politicians in the pocket of Big Pork passed an even more draconian bill last year to limit recovery in such cases to mere property value—with no compensation for health effects, etc. But to ease passage, the bill was altered to make the pending Murphy-Brown lawsuits exempt.