The article is not a substitute for legal advice.
News broke recently of a $50 million jury verdict* for punitive damages to neighbors of a large hog farm in North Carolina. The jury found the hog farm was a nuisance to neighboring landowners. You may have wondered as I did: shouldn’t a state’s right-to-farm law provide the hog farm a defense in this case? But before the jury’s verdict, the federal district judge hearing the case ruled that North Carolina’s right-to-farm law would not apply in this case. The judge ruled there had not been a change in the condition in the area to have allowed the right-to-farm law to act as a defense to the nuisance claims.
This case is one of 26 cases focused on hog farms in North Carolina. The neighboring landowners in this case claimed the hog farm in question was a nuisance and was negligent. In 2017, the defendant farms argued that North Carolina’s right-to-farm law provide a defense to the nuisance claims. I will discuss this court ruling in more detail below, but the federal judge ruled that the right-to-farm law did not apply in this case.
North Carolina’s Right-to-Farm Law
North Carolina passed its right-to-farm law in 1979; the text of the law can be found here (http://bit.ly/2wgEikT). The North Carolina legislature in passing the law pointed out in the initial section: “When other land uses extend into agricultural and forest areas, agricultural and forestry operations often become the subject of nuisance suits.” N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 106–700 (West 2018). Right-to-farm laws were often passed to provide a defense to nuisance suits when non-agricultural uses extended into areas used for agricultural operations. State legislatures had concerns that farms could become nuisances as urban sprawl becomes a problem in traditional agricultural areas.
The court in this case looked at the following language from the right-to-farm law:
“No agricultural or forestry operation or any of its appurtenances shall be or become a nuisance, private or public, by any changed conditions in or about the locality outside of the operation after the operation has been in operation for more than one year, when such operation was not a nuisance at the time the operation began.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106–701(a) (West 2018).
The language to pay attention to in the language above is: “[n]o agricultural or forestry operation or any of its appurtenances shall be or become a nuisance, private or public, by any changed conditions in or about the locality outside of the operation.” Id.
In 2017, the defendant farm moved for summary judgment based on the right-to-farm defense. The federal district court pointed to the language quoted above which found this defense applies when the agricultural operation becomes a nuisance based on a change in conditions in the property uses surrounding the farms. The plaintiffs had presented evidence to show that their properties were residences before the existence of the hog farm. In other words, the residences predated the hog farm.
The judge points to a North Carolina Court of Appeals decision addressing this issue. In that decision, a private summer camp in operation for 60 years brought a nuisance suit against a neighboring hog farm which had only existed for 15 years. The North Carolina Court of Appeals found that case was not about a non-agricultural use extending into an agricultural area. The camp predated the farm, so the right-to-farm defense did not apply for the farm. Because the residences predated the farm, the federal district court denied the motion for summary judgment based on North Carolina’s right-to-farm law.
Why Should You Care?
Many have argued this ruling sets a precedent against animal agriculture operations around the country. Although it is precedent, another court in another state using a different right-to-farm law could have different results.
Right-to-farm laws vary from state to state. Maryland’s right-to-farm law would not require that a change in conditions causes the nuisance due to non-agricultural uses extending into agricultural areas. (Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5–403(c) (West 2018). Delaware’s, on the other hand, has language limiting the nuisance defense to cases when the farm is being sued for a nuisance based on a change in the condition in the agricultural area (Del Code Ann. tit. 3, § 1401 (West 2018)). Agricultural operations will need to take a moment to review their state’s right-to-farm law to make sure it provides protections to their operations in a similar situation as the North Carolina hog farms.
For more information on Maryland’s right-to-farm law, see Goeringer and Lynch, Understanding Agricultural Liability: Maryland’s Right-to-Farm Law Can Limit Liability for Maryland Farm, Commercial Fishing, and Seafood Operators (UME FS-973 2017) (https://go.umd.edu/RTFMD).
*Note: This award was reduced later to $3.25 million in punitive damages based on a state law that limits punitive damage recovery.
Del Code Ann. tit. 3, § 1401 (West 2018).
In Re: NC Swin Farm Nuisance Litig., Master Case №5:15-CV-00013-BR, 2017 WL 5178038 (E.D. N.C. Nov. 8, 2017).
Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5–403 (West 2018).
N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 106–700 to 106–702 (West 2018).