New Law Limits Ag Nuisance Damages

March 29, 2017 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Today, Governor Branstad signed SF 447 into law. The new law, designed to curb damage awards in nuisance cases brought against responsible animal feeding operations, went into effect immediately.

The stated purpose of the law is to encourage animal feeding operations to “adopt existing prudent and generally utilized management practices for their animal feeding operations” and to “provide a reasonable level of protection to persons engaged in animal agricultural production from certain types of nuisance actions.”

Earlier bills had sought to shift the attorney fees of animal feeding operations to a losing plaintiff. The new law, however, does not include this provision.

What the law does do is cap “special compensatory damages,” or those damages awarded to a plaintiff for “annoyance and the loss of comfortable use and enjoyment of real property.” It also clearly defines allowable “compensatory damages” or those damages awarded for reductions in property value or medical expenses.

Plaintiffs in a nuisance action against an animal feeding operation can exempt their lawsuit from the limitations set forth in the law if they also prove one of the following:

  1. The nuisance is caused by the animal feeding operation’s failure to comply with state or federal laws, rules, or regulations applying to animal feeding operations OR
  2. The nuisance is caused by the animal feeding operation’s failure to use existing prudent generally utilized management practices reasonable for the operation.  

The burden is on the plaintiff, not the defendant, to prove the exception. If the plaintiff is unable to prove an exception, damages to a prevailing plaintiff would be limited to:

  1. The reduction in the fair market value of the plaintiff’s share of property caused by the animal feeding operation.This fair market value is to be determined based upon the price that a willing buyer would pay a willing seller not compelled to sell the property.
  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 law states that an animal feeding operation found to be a public or private nuisance would conclusively be a "permanent nuisance," thereby foreclosing future lawsuits for additional damages.          

Finally, while going into effect today, the law “does not apply to any cause of action that accrued prior to the effective date.”