‘Suffocating closeness’: US judge condemns ‘appalling conditions’ on industrial farms

A US judge has issued a blistering condemnation of industrial farming practices. The judgment comes as one US meat giant finally settles after a six-year legal battle with plaintiffs who sued the company over the stench, flies, buzzards and truck traffic coming from its industrial swine farms 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, decried the “outrageous conditions” at Kinlaw Farms, the operation at the center of the lawsuit – “conditions that there is no reason to suppose were unique to that facility”.

“How did it come to this?” wrote Wilkinson, who was nominated to the fourth US circuit court of appeals by then president Ronald Reagan and has served since 1984. “What was missing from Kinlaw Farms – and from Murphy-Brown – was the recognition that treating animals better will benefit humans. What was neglected is that animal welfare and human welfare, far from advancing at cross-purposes, are actually integrally connected. The decades-long transition to concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] lays bare this connection, and the consequences of its breach, with startling clarity.”

Wilkinson described a system in which pigs were forced to live in enclosures they had outgrown, reducing them “to almost suffocating closeness … The dangers endemic to such appalling conditions always manifested first in animal suffering. Ineluctably, however, the ripples of dysfunction would reach farm workers and, at last, members of the surrounding community.”

His comments concurred with the court’s main opinion.

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 outright. They described being trapped inside their own homes, sickened by the smell of hog waste stored in open pits, and unable to hang laundry, 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. Juries in 2018 and 2019 had awarded hog farm neighbors almost $550m. The US district court in Raleigh, North Carolina, knocked the awards down to about $98m because of a state law capping punitive damages.

Smithfield’s chief administrative officer, Keira Lombardo, said in a statement: “In the midst of a global pandemic, where food shortages have been commonplace, it is now the time to keep our full attention on the important work of producing good food in a responsible and sustainable way – rather than returning to the 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. It appealed the three largest verdicts, calling the litigation an “almost existential threat” to North Carolina farmers. It claimed the district court had made numerous errors, such as allowing the neighbors’ odor expert to testify while excluding some testimony from Smithfield’s expert.

In the new ruling, a three-judge panel rejected most of the pork producer’s arguments. The company “persisted in its chosen farming practices despite its knowledge of the harms to its neighbors, exhibiting wanton or wilful disregard of the neighbors’ rights to enjoyment of their property,” Judge Stephanie Thacker, an Obama nominee, wrote for the court.

The appellate judges did agree with Smithfield on one point: that the plaintiff’s lawyer improperly used the parent company’s financial data to convince jurors that punitive damages had to be large enough for the pork giant to feel. The appellate ruling said jurors should not have heard those details. “We fail to see what value the parent company financial evidence would have that could possibly outweigh the substantial risk of prejudice it carries in that delicate context,” wrote Thacker.

Elsie Herring, a plaintiff in another of the cases, said she was pleased that the court had sided with the neighbors on most issues. “Our lives have been destroyed by the industry,” she said. The North Carolina law firm Wallace & Graham, which represented the plaintiffs, did not respond to questions about the settlement. It said in a statement that the appellate court “fully got the truth” of its clients’ struggles.

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