Missouri Nuisance Statute Survives Constitutional Challenge

April 16, 2015
Kristine A. Tidgren

A Missouri statute designed to limit the damages recoverable by landowners in nuisance actions against farming operations has survived its first major challenge.

In 2011, Missouri enacted Mo. Rev. Stat. §537.296, a "right to farm" statute designed to supplant the common law of private nuisance where the alleged nuisance stems from an agricultural operation.

The statute, while not eliminating private nuisance actions, bars recovery for non-economic damages for items such as loss of use and enjoyment, inconvenience, or discomfort caused by the nuisance. Instead, plaintiffs seeking nuisance damages against farms can recover only economic damages in the form of diminution in the market value of the affected property and any documented medical costs caused by the nuisance.

On April 14, 2015, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality.

The plaintiffs were landowners who lived near a 4,000-hog CAFO. The CAFO was operated by a farming company and the hogs were owned by Cargill.

The plaintiffs filed an action alleging that the CAFO caused offensive odors, particulates, pathogens, hazardous substances, flies, and manure to “escape” onto their property. They claimed that the offensive emissions constituted a temporary nuisance that substantially impaired the “use and quiet enjoyment” of their property. They did not claim damages for diminution in rental value or documented medical costs as authorized by §537.296.2(2). The plaintiffs also asserted claims of negligence, vicarious liability, and conspiracy.

The district court entered judgment for the defendants, finding that §537.296 barred their claims.

The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the statute violated their constitutional rights, including equal protection and due process. They argued that the statute also authorized unconstitutional private takings and public takings without just compensation.

The Missouri Supreme Court rejected the arguments and affirmed the judgment in favor of the defendants.

The Court found that §537.296 is “plainly aimed at promoting the agricultural economy to create a public advantage or benefit. The fact that some parties will receive direct benefits and others will sustain direct costs does not negate the public purposes advanced by section 537.296.”

Because parties were authorized by the statute to recover diminution in rental value, the Court found that the statute did not deprive parties of just compensation in the event that a temporary nuisance were to amount to a temporary taking of private property.

The Court also found that the plaintiffs’ negligence, conspiracy and vicarious liability claims were inseparable from the nuisance allegations. They too were barred by §537.296.6(1).

This case has significant implications for agricultural interests. Similar constitutional claims are raised in the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. A more thorough article on the specific claims made in this Missouri case can be read here.

The case is Labrayere v. Bohr Farms, LLC, No. SC93816 (Mo. Sup. Ct. Apr. 14, 2015).

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