Limiting Damages in Ag Nuisance Lawsuits: A Bill to Watch

February 28, 2017 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Update: On March 29, 2017,  SF447 was signed into law by Governor Branstad. The final law is different from HSB134 described below. Please read this blogpost for a description of the new law.

HSB134 passed out of an Iowa House agricultural subcommittee on February 22. The bill would limit allowable damages in nuisance lawsuits filed against animal feeding operations that have used “existing prudent and generally utilized management practices reasonable” for their operations. The bill would also allow animal feeding operations that prevail in a nuisance lawsuit brought against them to recover reasonable attorney fees from the losing plaintiff.

The bill requires plaintiffs in a nuisance action to prove one of two things to exempt a nuisance lawsuit from the bill’s reach:

  1. The animal feeding operation failed to comply with state or federal laws, rules, or regulations applying to animal feeding operations OR
  2. The animal feeding operation failed to use existing prudent generally utilized management practices reasonable for the operation.  

If the plaintiff is unable to prove an exception, damages to a prevailing plaintiff would be limited to:

  1. Diminution in fair market value of the plaintiff’s share of property caused by the animal feeding operation.
  2. Compensatory damages for past, present, and future adverse health conditions, using “only objective and documented medical evidence that the nuisance or interference with the comfortable use and enjoyment of the person’s life or property was the proximate cause of the person’s adverse health condition.” AND
  3. “Special damages” stemming from “annoyance and the loss of comfortable use and enjoyment of real property,” not to exceed 1.5 times the amount of damages awarded in categories one and two above.

The bill also provides that an animal feeding operation found to be a public or private nuisance would be a "permanent nuisance," thereby foreclosing future lawsuits for additional damages.

Finally, the bill would require plaintiffs who file an action, but are unable to prove a nuisance, to pay the reasonable attorney fees and court costs of the animal feeding operation.  This bill would apply to causes of action alleging both statutory and common law nuisance.

The constitutionality of this legislation, if enacted, would no doubt be challenged as prior legislative attempts to limit nuisance actions against agricultural operations have been rejected by the Iowa Supreme Court. This legislation, however, is very different in that it does not seek to dismiss a nuisance lawsuit, but to limit the types of damages that can be recovered against “responsible” producers. The stated legislative purpose of this bill is to encourage the “expansion of responsible animal agricultural production in this state which provides employment opportunities in and economic growth for rural Iowa, contributes tax revenues to the state and to local communities, and protects our valuable natural resources.”

We’ll keep an eye on this bill as the Iowa Legislature begins its first funnel week.