Our Opinion: Let jurors decide penalty when N.C. hog farms pollute

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State lawmakers want to shield eastern North Carolina hog farms from high-dollar verdicts, but in doing so, they would stack the deck against private landowners and undermine jurors’ right to mete out justice for their neighbors.

Two farmer-legislators — Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, and Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson — introduced bills that would limit compensatory damages against agricultural and forestry operations.

For permanent nuisances, damages would “be measured by the reduction in the fair market value of the plaintiff’s property caused by the nuisance, but not to exceed the fair market value of the property,” according to the bills. Damages for temporary nuisances would be limited “to the dimunition of the fair rental value of the plaintiff’s property.”

If these conditions sound oddly specific, perhaps it’s because the legislation could affect 26 lawsuits filed against hog producer Murphy-Brown. More than 500 plaintiffs are suing hog farms near their homes over odor from sprayfields where hog waste is used as fertilizer.

“This bill is designed to protect 50,000 hardworking North Carolina farmers who are feeding a hungry world,” Dixon told the News & Observer in a statement. “... Lawyers don’t like that. They want to sue farmers for outrageous sums without having to prove real damages.”

Lawmakers approved Dixon’s House Bill 467 in a 64-48 floor vote Thursday after it passed in committee the day before. Speaker Tim Moore called for an early vote on the legislation over opponents’ protests, the N&O reported. Moore also voted in favor of the bill.

While Republican legislative leaders favor HB 467 and Jackson’s Senate version, SB 460, the proposals undercut private property rights, long believed to be a sacred cow for conservatives. Former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr and former state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, an attorney, both question the bills’ premise and their legality.

“If passed into law, it would amount to an inverse condemnation of these property rights, not for a public use, but for the private purposes of a corporation,” Stam wrote, according to a News & Observer story. “No matter how well-intentioned, it is not constitutional.”

Agriculture is the backbone of eastern North Carolina, and hog farmers’ work is important. While the Times supports area farmers, we don’t think the necessity of their noble vocation should give them carte blanche to foul the air, pollute the waterways and saunter away with a slap on the wrist.

Farms should be good neighbors in their communities. Homeowners need not sacrifice their quality of life and endure declining property values in order to, in Dixon’s words, “feed a hungry world.”

Weighing the competing interests, we’re convinced accommodations can be made to mitigate the effect hog waste has on nearby homes. We have a top-flight agricultural research institution in N.C. State University. Is there a solution where everybody wins?

When disputes can’t be resolved amicably, residents have the right to their day in court. We believe jurors can decide cases fairly and ensure justice is done without legislative interference.

We trust the wisdom and common sense of ordinary people in the jury box more than the machinations of state government. Representative Dixon and Senator Jackson should, too.