Right-to-farm: Big-Ag calling to amend laws in wake of nuisance suits

Big-Ag is calling for state laws to be amended in its favor when it comes to neighbors suing farms over nuisance complaints.

“Right-to-farm” laws are already in place in states across the country, protecting farmers from potential neighborhood nuisance lawsuits due to routine noise and odors, but now Big-Ag is seeking more protection across the board.

Largely due to the recent verdicts in North Carolina lawsuits against Smithfield Foods subsidiary Murphy Brown, Big-Ag is fighting back. Last month, more damages were awarded in what has become a long line of lawsuits against the pork producers – with more to come. Murphy Brown has lost all five of the cases over nuisance allegations it has faced in federal district court. Total damages have now reached more than $550 million.

Legislators in Georgia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia have either proposed or passed legislation in effort to protect farmers against similar nuisance lawsuits from their neighbors.

North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia have already passed the legislation and changed the law. The legislation varies, but commonalities among the amended bills come down to two important changes: First, the reduced area surrounding the farms that are within jurisdiction to take legal action - West Virginia has cut that number down to just a half mile. Second, the reduction to complete removal of punitive damages that a plaintiff may seek. The West Virginia law prohibits punitive damages and damages are limited to compensation for diminished property value.

West Virginia’s change in legislation points directly at the North Carolina Smithfield Foods cases. Farm lobby groups have made it clear that they intend on fighting similar lawsuits in other states while the industry's lobby groups have been clear that the North Carolina cases are the force behind the bill's amendments.

While the national focus of this issue has mainly surrounded the hog farm industry, just last week an Associated Press story reported ongoing cattle manure issues in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin.

“Scientists are one step closer to understanding how dangerous contaminants from fecal matter are entering private wells in a northeastern Wisconsin county,” the article stated. “Kewaunee County, where cattle outnumber people nearly 5 to 1, is a focal point in Wisconsin over whether local, state and federal governments adequately protect drinking water from manure from dairy farms.”

State regulations in Wisconsin assert that manure lagoons are allowed to leak up to 500 gallons per acre, per day. Studies have shown that the contamination of private wells throughout the county may be the result of leakage from the lagoons.

The study’s findings come during legislature’s new bipartisan Water Quality Task Force that is aimed at investigating how to improve drinking water throughout the state.

Recently, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) weighed in on why it believes Big-Ag is taking action to amend these bills in a story with the Food & Environment Report Network.

“Across the country, we're seeing more rural communities — the people who are actually living next to these CAFOs — really starting to organize,” said Kara Shannon, manager of farm animal welfare campaigns at the ASPCA, in a WBUR article. “In some cases, those communities are passing local ordinances and permitting and trying to get a handle on how this waste is being managed, or what the process looks like to build a new CAFO.”

Thousands of lawsuits against major agricultural companies are awaiting trial across the nation due to nuisance complaints of all scales.

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