RALEIGH, N.C. — Legislation to limit farms’ liability in lawsuits over animal waste smells passed the state House Monday after a significant change that will keep it from applying to current lawsuits against a large hog producer.
After a lengthy debate, the House narrowly voted to add language to specify the legislation would not apply to any pending cases. The chamber then passed the amended bill as a whole, sending it to the state Senate.
The legislation would limit penalties that a jury or judge could impose against hog farms or other agricultural operations in lawsuits accusing them of creating a nuisance for neighbors. The farms’ liability would be limited to the lost rental or property value plaintiffs can prove was the result of the nuisance. The liability couldn’t exceed a piece of property’s market value.
Some Democrats and Republicans argued during floor debate that the General Assembly would meddle in existing lawsuits without the amendment added Monday.
“We don’t need to be, at the last minute, rushing in to bail out a defendant — and that’s what’s happening,” said Republican Rep. John Blust, the Greensboro-area lawyer who introduced the amendment to keep the bill from applying to pending litigation.
Multiple lawmakers alluded during floor debate to a group of lawsuits by 500 rural neighbors of North Carolina hog farms who say flies and animal waste smells are a significant problem. A trial could occur as early as this summer.
The federal lawsuits largely target the North Carolina-based hog production division of Virginia’s Smithfield Foods, which is owned by a division of China-based WH Group. The Chinese company is the world’s largest pork producer.
Another eastern North Carolina Republican who argued for amending the legislation, Rep. Michael Speciale, said that applying the new legislation to an existing case would be tantamount to determining its outcome, which “is the wrong thing to do.”
One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County, argued that the bill was needed to protect the network of contract farmers in North Carolina who raise the hogs for large pork producers.
Dixon, himself a longtime farmer, argued that many of the allegations that the farms create a nuisance are “at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies.”
Under common waste-handling practices for hog farms, liquid waste is often sprayed onto acres of farm fields. The droplets can radiate smells and be carried by wind.
But Dixon said: “I have lived on a farm all my life. My children and my grandchildren have walked gleefully with me through my hog houses and my turkey houses, and they’ve participated on a daily basis.”
Dixon represents a territory dotted with livestock operations in the country’s No. 3 hog state by gross income. Hogs were a $21 billion industry nationwide in 2015, with North Carolina operations racking up $2.3 billion of that, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
— Jonathan Drew, Associated Press
For more news from North Carolina, click here.