Smithfield Trial: The Rest of the Story

DSC_0763After reading the transcript of the trial I thought, They were in a trap before the first witness spoke a word.The roots of the lawsuit against Smithfield Foods run back over five years to when a pair of out-of-state lawyers, Charles Speer from Kansas City and Richard Middleton from Savannah, saw a way to make money by suing North Carolina hog farmers.To file their lawsuits Speer and Middleton needed clients. So, with the help of anti-hog farming groups, lawyers from their firms knocked on doors of farmers’ neighbors, saying, ‘Sign here, we’ll file the lawsuit, we’ll pay the bills, and if we win you’ll get part of the money.’It worked. They signed up hundreds of clients.They then partnered with a North Carolina law firm, Wallace and Graham, and filed their lawsuits. But, not long after that, a state judge sent Speer and Middleton packing, adding he didn’t ever want to see them in his courtroom again. The judge handed the lawsuits (and the clients) to Wallace and Graham which then partnered with a law firm from Texas.Earlier this year, before the first ‘nuisance’ trial started, the lead lawyer from Texas asked the judge to instruct Smithfield’s lawyers not to mention Speer and Middleton to the jurors. And the judge agreed. So, Smithfield couldn’t tell jurors about lawyers filing lawsuits to make money.As soon as the trial started the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael Kaeske, began hammering Smithfield Foods, telling jurors Smithfield was a big corporation with a lot of money and if it had just spent $500 million it could have cured the problems with odor on hog farms across North Carolina. Why hadn’t Smithfield done that? The answer was simple: Greed. Michael Kaeske made Smithfield Foods into a villain.And when the trial ended that was the picture the jury had: Smithfield was a greedy varmint and Michael Kaeske’s clients were long-suffering victims.No juror ever heard the rest of the story. Because no lawyer could ask a plaintiff: You lived beside Billy Kinlaw’s hog farm for 18 years and never complained once about odor – until those lawyers from Missouri and Georgia knocked on your door and said you could make money if you joined their lawsuit. Was that a coincidence?The jurors didn’t even know that the lawyers standing in front of them, suing Smithfield Foods, had asked the judge to keep that fact from them.Often, at the end of a trial, a jury has to answer a straightforward question: Who’s the villain? Michael Kaeske, free to say pretty much whatever he wanted about Smithfield Foods, turned it into a villain. And Smithfield’s lawyers, with their hands tied, couldn’t tell the rest of the story.

Stopping Predatory Lawyers

Stepping to the microphone, Mrs. Elsie Herring – a Community Organizer for the Environmental Justice Network in Duplin County – explained to the reporters at the press conference why she opposed House Bill 467.Mrs. Herring repeated the same charges she’d made for years: She said a farmer sprays hog waste eight feet from her house. She’s also said, in interviews, she lives as a prisoner in her own home – that she can’t go outside because of the smell.It’s a horror story. But is it true?Is a hog farmer actually spraying waste eight feet from Elsie Herring’s house?Here’s a photo of Mrs. Herring’s house:houseFrom her house, you can’t even see the farmer’s field. It’s on the far side of the trees.Here’s another photo – an aerial photo – of Mrs. Herring’s house, the trees, and the farmer’s field on the far side of the trees.arielThe farmer’s field is 200 feet – not eight feet – from Mrs. Herring’s house. Which is state law – no farmer can spray within 200 feet of a neighbor’s house.And here’s a photo Mrs. Herring, interviewing with another reporter, saying she’s a prisoner in her own house – while sitting on her front porch. Outside.elsie herring interviewBy law, every hog farmer must file a record with the state every time he sprays.Four years ago, out-of-state lawyers – who saw hog farms as ripe targets for an unusual type of lawsuit – came to eastern North Carolina and went to work, going door to door, signing up clients. They said: We’ll bring the suits, we’ll pay the bills, and, if we win, we’ll split the money. Elsie Herring was one of the people who signed up.On the internet, the debate over House Bill 467 has turned into a political brawl with half-true and untrue charges flying. What House Bill 467 actually does is simple – and here’s why it will make a difference: This legislation will protect family farmers from lawsuits by predatory lawyers.