A judge in the United States has issued a harsh condemnation of industrial agricultural practices. The ruling comes as an American meat giant finally reaches a settlement after a six-year legal battle with plaintiffs who sued the company over stench, flies, vultures and truck traffic coming from their farms. of industrial hogs in North Carolina.
J Harvie Wilkinson III, one of the judges in a case that pitted locals against the Smithfield subsidiary formerly known as Murphy-Brown, condemned the “scandalous conditions” at Kinlaw Farms, the operation at the center of the lawsuit – “conditions in which there is no reason to suppose that they were exclusive to that facility ”.
“How did this come about?” wrote Wilkinson, who was nominated to the fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals by then-President Ronald Reagan and has worked since 1984. “What was missing at Kinlaw Farms – and at Murphy-Brown – was the recognition that better treatment animals will benefit humans. What was neglected is that animal welfare and human welfare, far from advancing in contradictory purposes, are actually integrally connected. The decades-long transition to concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] it exposes this connection and the consequences of its failure with surprising clarity. “
Wilkinson described a system in which pigs were forced to live in enclosures they had left behind, reducing them “to almost suffocating closeness … The endemic dangers of such dire conditions always manifested first in the suffering of the animals. However, inevitably, the waves of dysfunction would reach the agricultural workers and eventually the members of the surrounding community.
His comments were consistent with the main opinion of the court.
More than 500 North Carolinians, most of them black, filed more than two dozen lawsuits in 2014. Some lived near farms that had contracts with Smithfield. Others lived near farms owned by the company. They described being trapped inside their own homes, disgusted by the smell of hog waste stored in open pits, and unable to hang clothes, cook outdoors or entertain visitors.
The announcement of the company’s decision to settle came immediately after the fourth circuit in Richmond, Virginia, rejected a call from the world’s largest pork producer for a retrial of one of the cases. Jurors in 2018 and 2019 had awarded pig farm neighbors nearly $ 550 million. The United States district court in Raleigh, North Carolina, reduced the awards to about $ 98 million due to a state law limiting punitive damages.
Smithfield Managing Director Keira Lombardo said in a statement: “In the midst of a global pandemic, where food shortages have been commonplace, now is the time to keep our full attention on the important work of producing good food. Responsibly. and sustainably, rather than returning to court for what would be ongoing and distracting litigation. ”Details of the settlement were not disclosed.
Smithfield lost the first five cases that went to trial. He appealed the three most important verdicts, calling the litigation a “near existential threat” to North Carolina farmers. He claimed that the district court had made numerous mistakes, including allowing the neighbors’ odor expert to testify and excluding some testimony from the Smithfield expert.
In the new ruling, a three-judge panel rejected most of the pork producer’s arguments. The company “persisted in its chosen agricultural practices despite its knowledge of harm to its neighbors, displaying a lewd or deliberate disregard for the rights of neighbors to enjoy their property,” wrote Obama-nominated Judge Stephanie Thacker, for the court.
The appellate judges agreed with Smithfield on one point: that the plaintiff’s attorney misused the parent company’s financial data to convince jurors that punitive damages had to be large enough for the financial giant to pig felt them. The appeal ruling said jurors should not have heard those details. “We do not see what value would be the financial evidence from the parent company that could possibly outweigh the substantial risk of prejudice it carries in such a sensitive context,” Thacker wrote.
Elsie Herring, a plaintiff in another case, said she was pleased that the court had sided with neighbors on most issues. “Our lives have been destroyed by the industry,” he said. The North Carolina law firm Wallace & Graham, which represented the plaintiffs, did not respond to questions about the settlement. He said in a statement that the appeals court “fully understood the truth” of his clients’ struggles.
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