Appeals court affirms Smithfield’s liability for noxious odors, noise, and pests

North Carolina is home to thousands of industrial animal operations.

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producers, liable for noxious odors, noise, and pests caused by its hog operations and upheld jury verdicts for neighbors. The decision is an important victory in the ongoing struggle to protect North Carolina communities, water quality, and clean air from highly-polluting industrial hog operations.

Leveraging decades of work and deep knowledge of the hog industry’s reckless and harmful waste-disposal practices, SELC filed a friend of the court brief in support of the neighbors with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in this case. To support the jury’s award of punitive damages, our brief detailed the industry’s history of abuses in North Carolina; the massive pollution, air and water quality degradation, and the serious harms industrial hog operations inflict on low-income, largely Black and Brown communities living in close proximity to them; as well as the shocking lack of oversight or protections afforded by the North Carolina General Assembly and state environmental regulators.

In a strong vindication of our position and decades of advocacy, the Fourth Circuit wrote that “[i]t is past time to acknowledge the full harms that the unreformed practices of hog farming are inflicting.”

In the closing statement of a concurring opinion, Judge Wilkinson's noted:  "Finally there is Wilbur, the pig who was friends with a spider, a rat, geese, sheep, cows, and a little girl. Charlotte's Web reminds us that life is all interconnected. And while not all pigs will be pardoned like Wilbur, it is fitting that the creatures who gave their very lives for us, receive in return our efforts to make their brief stay on earth less intolerable. For their sake and ours. Such is the web of life."

The Fourth Circuit issued a decision largely affirming a jury award of compensatory and punitive damages in favor of the plaintiffs and against Murphy Brown/Smithfield Foods in the nuisance case brought by private law firms on behalf of 10 eastern North Carolina residents. The case is one of more than a score of lawsuits filed on behalf of 500 plaintiffs. Five of the cases have been tried to judgment, yielding awards of compensatory and punitive damages against Smithfield totaling nearly $100 million. This is the first case decided by the federal appellate court.

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