The road dipped, curled and twisted through a hurricane, floods, and four lawsuits against hog farms.
In the first three trials the lawyers suing Smithfield Foods won $545 million (the verdicts were later reduced to comply with North Carolina law). Then, at the end of the fourth trial, the road changed directions. The lawyers asked the court to award between $32 million and $40 million but the jury only awarded a total of $102,400. (Six plaintiffs were awarded a total of $2400, one $25,000 and one $75,000.)
Federal Judge Earl Britt had presided over the first three trials but, in the fourth trial, he was replaced by Judge David Faber. It’s not hard to make a case Judge Faber was more even-handed than Judge Britt. For example, in the first three trials Judge Britt instructed juries to decide both ‘Compensatory’ and ‘Punitive’ damages at once – while Judge Faber split the two types of damages apart, allowed the jury to decide compensatory damages first, and then ruled as a matter of law punitive damages were not justified.
Smithfield Foods also had a new lawyer in the fourth trial. In the first three trials the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael Kaeske, showed a genius for villainizing Smithfield in the courtroom. In the fourth trial Smithfield’s new lawyer fought back successfully.
And, of course, the biggest difference is the amount of the verdict dropped in the fourth trial.
Why does that matter? The lawyers filed these lawsuits against Smithfield Foods to make money. They receive 40% of each verdict plus their expenses. In a trial that lasted four weeks, will their share of a verdict of $102,400 be enough to make a profit? Probably not.
During the first three trials the road ran from bad to worse to worst for hog farmers, but in the fourth trial the road changed directions. Which is an encouraging sign.
The fifth trial – with Judge Britt presiding again – was scheduled to begin last week. But, then, the road curved again. The trial was postponed due to the government shutdown. When will the trial start? We’ll keep you posted.
This is part 1 of a 6 part series.