Jurors slap pork giant Smithfield with $25M for nuisances

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal jury today punished the world's largest pork producer, deciding Smithfield Foods should pay two neighbors more than $25 million for unreasonable nuisances they suffered from odors, flies and rumbling trucks after an industrial-scale hog grower expanded near their home.

The case, which was supposed to be one of the most favorable to Smithfield Foods out of dozens of similar pending lawsuits in North Carolina, turned out worse for the company than a previous lawsuit that rocked agribusiness in the country's No. 2 pork-producing state.

That earlier case, selected by lawyers for more than 500 neighbors who are suing industrial-scale hog farms in eastern North Carolina, ended in April with jurors awarding 10 neighbors $51 million for nuisances they'd long tolerated. The fine was cut to about $3 million because North Carolina law limits punitive damages. Today's damages are also expected to be slashed.

Still, the April verdict led North Carolina legislators to pass a law this week erecting new barriers against nuisance lawsuits that all but eliminate the right of neighbors to sue Smithfield Foods, its contract growers or any other agribusiness. The legislation was needed "to save every farmer in this state from frivolous lawsuits," said bill sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson, an agribusiness founder and Republican who represents three counties in what is the country's heaviest concentration of industrialized hog lots.

Critics billed the legislation as an attack on private property rights in order to protect a well-heeled industry. The law adopted over a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper will be followed by demands for similar protection by other special interests, said Republican Rep. John Blust, an attorney from suburban Greensboro.

"This is like the first domino to fall," he said.

Smithfield declined to comment, citing a judge's gag order meant to limit pretrial publicity ahead of the next trials.

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