On Thursday, Smithfield Foods Inc. announced the settlement of nuisance lawsuits brought by hundreds of people living near its hog farms in North Carolina. The settlement came directly after the Fourth Circuit issued a divided ruling in the case, upholding the 2018 jury verdict awarding monetary damages to the plaintiffs.
The settlement resolves about 26 cases brought against Murphy Brown, LLC, which is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, by over 500 neighbors. The announcement of the settlement, which addresses the Fourth Circuit suit as well as other similar suits, came hours after the Fourth Circuit’s decision, according to a report by the Associated Press, which was published in the Fayetteville Observer.
The plaintiffs in the suits claimed that conditions at the farm in Bladen County, N.C. were causing putrid smells, specifically from open-air hog waste. They claimed that the company could have invested in technology to address the issue, but instead disposed of the waste from 15,000 hogs annually at the facility in lagoons. This system, which includes putting waste into pits and then spraying it onto fields after the waste has broken down, has reportedly been used in hog operations for decades, but improved methods are available.
Judge Stephanie Thacker in the opinion determined that the defendant “persisted in its chosen farming practices despite its knowledge of the harms to its neighbors.” The opinion explained that hog carcasses were placed in dumpsters on the farm, and hog waste was sprayed from lagoons onto fields and trucks, and caused unfavorable conditions in the area. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson added in his opinion that the poor conditions at the hog farm create poor conditions for the neighborhoods near the farm. Judge G. Steven Agee, however, disagreed and said that the defendant should be granted another trial.
Keira Lombardo, Smithfield Foods CEO, said in a statement that the settlement takes into account the court’s divided decision. One of the lawsuits, according to the Associated Press report, resulted in a $94 million damages award, but recent verdicts had lower awards. Lombardo did not disclose the terms of the settlement, and the Associated Press article reported that the attorneys for the plaintiffs also had not disclosed the terms.
In the statement, Lombardo said the lawsuits against them were part of an effort to “Dismantl(e) our safe, reliable and modern system of food production,” noting that these actions, while in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, were distracting from the necessary focus of producing food.
In the Fourth Circuit suit, Smithfield Foods is represented by Hunton Andrews Kurth.