Property owners neighboring a large swine operation brought a lawsuit in 2018 against the hog integrator Murphy-Brown. The plaintiffs claimed loss of use and enjoyment of their properties and brought claims of nuisance. A jury awarded $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages to each of 10 plaintiffs. Because North Carolina law caps punitive damages to the greater of three times the compensatory damages or $250,000, the punitive damages were reduced to $2.5 million. Murphy-Brown appealed and sought a new trial on several grounds. The court affirmed the jury verdict, but remanded for a rehearing on the amount of the punitive damages. [Murphy-Brown has since ended the case by settling with these and other plaintiffs.]
Statute of limitations:
On appeal, Murphy-Brown claimed North Carolina’s three-year statute of limitations for trespass barred the plaintiffs’ “continuing” nuisance claim. A continuing nuisance is a single event while a reoccurring nuisance involves repeated injuries. Although the first nuisance action occurred more outside of the three year timeline, the court found the statute of limitations did not bar the plaintiffs’ claims because the odor, noise, and pests were a repeated invasion rather than a single occurrence.
Right to Farm Act Amendment:
While this case was ongoing, the North Carolina General Assembly amended its Right to Farm Law to limit compensatory damages in nuisance lawsuits to the reduction in fair market value or fair rental value of the property. Murphy-Brown claimed this amendment limited the amount of compensatory damages the plaintiffs could receive in the current case
Looking to the title of the amendment, “An Act to Clarify the Remedies Available in Private Nuisance Actions Against Agricultural and Forestry Operations,” Murphy-Brown claimed the amendment’s purpose was to clarify existing law. The court found that the amendment was a change to the law rather than a clarification. Additionally, because the amendment specifically stated it only applied to lawsuits brought after the date it became law, the court found the amendment did not retroactively apply to this case.
Willful and Wanton Conduct
Murphy-Brown also appealed the award of punitive damages claiming there was insufficient evidence to meet the willful or wanton conduct element required to award punitive damages. The court found that the defendant had knowledge of the harms of its farming practices and policies and intentionally disregarded the harm these methods could cause.
Murphy-Brown last challenge involved the admittance of its “corporate grandparent” Smithfield’s and “ultimate parent entity” WH Group’s financial information. The court found the information regarding the finances and executive compensation was relevant when determining nuisance liability and whether Murphy-Brown would face undue hardship in abating the nuisance. However, the court found this information could sway a jury when calculating punitive damages. Therefore, that evidence should have been excluded when determining punitive damages. The court remanded for rehearing on that issue.
McKiver v. Murphy Brown, LLC, 980 F.3d 937 (4th Cir. 2020).