North Carolina’s New Right to Farm Law Bars Nuisance Claim
On March 16, 2020, the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a ruling on another North Carolina nuisance case against the swine integrator, Murphy-Brown. The federal judge ruled North Carolina’s Right to Farm law barred the nuisance claim because the plaintiff failed to bring the claim within one year of the operation’s establishment or fundamental change. The judge also found that the statute of limitations barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim.
North Carolina’s Right to Farm Law was in the spotlight recently when nuisance and negligence claims were allowed to proceed to trial against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. After several discovery pool cases, juries awarded large verdicts against Murphy-Brown.
In response, the North Carolina General Assembly amended its Right to Farm law to prohibit nuisance lawsuits against an agricultural operation if:
(1) The plaintiff is a legal possessor of the real property affected by the conditions alleged to be a nuisance.
(2) The real property affected by the conditions alleged to be a nuisance is located within one half-mile of the source of the activity or structure alleged to be a nuisance.
(3) The action is filed within one year of the establishment of the agricultural or forestry operation or within one year of the operation undergoing a fundamental change.
N.C. Gen Stat. § 106-701 (2018). This statute did not apply to the 2018 discovery pool cases because it was enacted after the cases began. Subsection (3) of the amended law was tested in this recent case.
Amended Law Bars Nuisance Claim
The plaintiff in this case lives within a half of a mile from a contract grower who houses the defendant’s swine. The plaintiff claimed the swine operation began “in or around 1995” and the plaintiff has “various ailments and experiences changes in behavior from the proximity of defendant’s swine operation.”
The plaintiff did not file this suit until 2019, but the farm began operating approximately twenty-four years earlier. This was well after the required one year maximum time allowed to file such a lawsuit. The plaintiff claimed the farm went through a “fundamental change” when the defendant removed its swine from the farm in 2018. The court found that a de-escalation of the operation—and therefore a de-escalation of the nuisance—is clearly not a fundamental change as the statute intended. Additionally, a change in ownership or size of the operation is specifically excluded from the definition of fundamental change. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-701(a1).
Negligence Claim Barred by Statute of Limitations
North Carolina imposes a three-year statute of limitations for negligence claims. N.C. Gen Stat. § 1-52. As previously stated, the swine initially arrived sometime around 1995. The plaintiff claimed he visited doctors for his health issues in 2006. The plaintiff sought legal representation in 2016, but after the firm declined to represent him, the plaintiff filed his complaint pro se in 2018.
The court ruled the statute of limitations expired in 2009—three years after the start of plaintiff’s health concerns. The interaction with the attorney could not in any way suspend the statute of limitations. Additionally, the plaintiff offered no evidence of continuing harm in the three years before the plaintiff filed this complaint. Therefore, the court dismissed the complaint and closed the case.
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