North Carolina Supreme Court Denies Appeal Challenging Right to Farm Act

January 4, 2023 | Kitt Tovar Jensen

On December 16, 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court denied an appeal claiming that the state’s Right to Farm Act was unconstitutional. Previously, the North Carolina Court of Appeals had granted the State’s motion to dismiss under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6). Rural Empowerment Ass’n for Cmty. Help v. North Carolina, 2021 WL 6014722 (N.C. App. Dec. 21, 2021).

Murphy-Brown Litigation and Subsequent Amendments to Right to Farm Act

Beginning in 2014, twenty-six federal nuisance lawsuits were filed against hog-integrator and Smithfield Foods subsidiary, Murphy-Brown. Initially, Murphy-Brown claimed that North Carolina’s Right to Farm Act barred the lawsuits. However, a federal judge allowed the lawsuits to proceed after concluding that the statute did not apply because the plaintiffs’ residences predated the defendants’ hog farm. (An agricultural operation cannot be a nuisance “by any changed conditions outside of the operation.”) N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-700 (2017). The lawsuits resulted in five large jury verdicts against Murphy-Brown.

In 2017 and 2018, the North Carolina General Assembly amended the Right to Farm Act in response to these lawsuits. S.B. 711 created additional requirements a plaintiff must meet to bring a nuisance lawsuit while H.B. 467 provides limitations on the amount of compensatory and punitive damages a plaintiff can receive. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-701, 106-702 (2019).

Right to Farm Act Amendments Challenged

A group of advocacy organizations brought a lawsuit in state court claiming that the law violated North Carolina’s Due Process Clause (Law of the Land Clause). The superior court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed finding that promoting agricultural activities clearly falls within the state’s police powers. Additionally, both S.B. 711 and H.B. 467 promote the public good by reasonably limiting nuisance claims against agricultural operations.

The plaintiffs then appealed this decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal without considering the merits because it “lacked a substantial constitutional question.” The Court also denied discretionary review. This order brings closure to this long-standing farm nuisance litigation. Justice Earls alone dissented writing that the plaintiffs “raise fundamental constitutional questions that have not been previously decided by this Court.”