Who is suing North Carolina hog farmers? Michael Kaeske, a successful trial lawyer from Texas, is leading the lawsuits against Smithfield Foods. His partners in the lawsuit include another Texas firm, Baron and Budd, and Wallace & Graham, a North Carolina law firm. They represent more than 500 plaintiffs in eastern North Carolina who live near hog farms associated with Murphy-Brown.
How could the lawsuits impact the economy? Hog farming is one of the pillars of eastern North Carolina’s economy, supporting more than 46,000 jobs and contributing $11 billion annually to the economy. Negative verdicts in the nuisance lawsuits can directly affect thousands of farm families and workers – hogs have been or will be removed from the farms involved in the first three cases. These verdicts also impact businesses that sell farm equipment and crops to feed mills, as well as local businesses where farmers are customers – such as convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses.
How did the lawsuits start? Five years ago, a group of lawyers from out of state came to eastern North Carolina and started recruiting clients with a pitch that went something like this: ‘Sign here, we’ll file the lawsuits, we’ll pay the bills, and if we win you’ll get part of the money.’ Some of the original attorneys were thrown off the case amid complaints of unethical behavior, but the cases resumed under Wallace & Graham.
How many verdicts have there been? Three. One for more than $25 million, another for more than $50 million, and a third for $473.5 million. A total of $548.5 million.
How much money will each plaintiff receive? North Carolina law limits punitive damages in cases like this. While the three verdicts will be reduced, the total award in these cases is still nearly $100 million.It’s not clear precisely what the lawyers will receive, but according to a contract Wallace & Graham filed with the state court in these cases, the lawyers would receive 40% of all verdict awards, plus their expenses, and the plaintiffs would receive the balance.
What happens next? Smithfield Foods intends to appeal. The appeals will be heard in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. The next trial in Raleigh is scheduled to begin in November.
Could more lawsuits be filed? The N.C. General Assembly has passed legislation over the past two years that limit when nuisance lawsuits can be filed against agricultural operations and clarifying how much money can be awarded in these types of nuisance lawsuits. This legislation provides stronger protection for our farmers, but it’s always possible that additional lawsuits could be filed or the legislation could be challenged in court.