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A recent $50 million jury verdict in a historic hog nuisance case is likely to be significantly reduced due to state law caps on punitive damages. The group of North Carolina plaintiffs were each awarded $75k in compensatory damages, as well as $5 million each in punitive damages, against a pig farming conglomerate.
The case is relatively simple. Residents surrounding the Murphy-Brown/Smithfield pig farm have been forced to deal with the awful smell of pig feces since the farm started operating. What's worse is that experts found that bacteria from the pig feces travelled through the air and was found on the residents' homes. In short, the jury agreed that the residents have suffered damages because the pig farm reduced their property values, and caused significant life disruption.
Generally, punitive damages are subject to review when they hit the 1 to 10 ratio. This case has a ratio closer to 1 to 50. And unfortunately for the plaintiffs in this case, North Carolina law strictly prevents punitive damages from being assessed at a ratio above 1 to 3, or $250k (whichever is greater).
And while the pig farmers plan to appeal, and claim that this and similar lawsuits have been "nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine," it may be a rather difficult fight to win anything other than remittitur. Significantly, in order for the jury to have awarded punitive damages, it had to find that the pig farm acted with malice, or willful or wanton conduct.
Based on the reporting of this case, it appears that the pig farming giant is gearing up for more legal battles. In fact, another similar trial is slated to begin in a month.
Interestingly, the industry just won a big battle in the North Carolina legislature. A recently passed law, which, luckily for the plaintiffs, lawmakers refused to make retroactive, limits the amount of compensatory damages nuisance plaintiffs can be awarded to only property devaluation. Essentially, the new law will no longer allow for nuisance claimants to receive damages for the loss of quality of life.
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