Wallace and Graham specializes in environmental litigation. Most recently, our firm has represented neighbors harmed by Duke Energy coal ash contaminants and neighbors harmed by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Our firm is passionate about doing what we can to protect North Carolinians from environmental harms and disturbances that affect their quality of life. Below is a summary of two significant environmental cases.
In Re Swine Farm Litigation: Verdicts in excess of $549 million for the first five jury trials
LEAD COUNSEL: Mona Lisa Wallace, Wallace and Graham, P.A., Salisbury, N.C.
CO-COUNSEL: Mark Doby, John Hughes, Daniel Wallace, Whitney Wallace Williams, Wallace and Graham, P.A., Salisbury, N.C.; Lynn Bradshaw, Michael Kaeske, Kaeske Law Firm, Austin, Texas; Lisa Blue, Baron & Blue, Dallas, Texas.
Verdict 1: 10 plaintiffs – Verdict: $50.75 million, reduced pursuant to statutory damages cap to $3.25 million
Verdict 2: 2 plaintiffs – Verdict: $25.13 million, reduced pursuant to statutory damages cap to $630,000
Verdict 3: 6 plaintiffs – Verdict: $473.5 million, reduced pursuant to statutory damages cap to $94 million
Verdict 4: 8 plaintiffs – Verdict: $102,400
Verdict 5: 10 plaintiffs – Verdict: $420,000
In the 1980s and 1990s, a building boom by the swine industry resulted in southeastern North Carolina counties being filled with large factory farms, often built without consideration of the rights and needs of families who lived in existing rural communities. The industry, which also had a stranglehold on the state legislature, repeatedly beat back efforts to increase state or local regulation. Then, when a bill was finally passed banning new farms, the industry successfully lobbied to have all of the existing ones grandfathered in.
As a result, rural areas, including many low-income communities of color, suffered for years. The unpredictable fumes, nauseating odors coming from millions of gallons of untreated hog waste, and heavy truck traffic significantly impacted the communities’ quality of life, and impaired the ability of families to use and enjoy their homes. Bouts of flies would interrupt outdoor activities. Filth leaked from trucks carrying live and dead hogs. Meanwhile, massive amounts of contaminants, bacteria and pathogens, ammonia, and other contaminants were released into the environment.
Then, attorneys at Wallace and Graham, along with co-counsel above, stepped forward to represent residents of these impacted communities. After five years of scorched-earth litigation in federal court, the trials of the first selected bellwether plaintiffs began in April 2018, with the fifth and most recent trial concluding in March 2019.
The series of trials, each several weeks long, resulted in unanimous jury verdicts holding Smithfield Hog Production liable for causing a substantial and unreasonable interference with the plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their homes under a common law claim of private nuisance. Four of the five juries also found liability for punitive damages.
The third jury verdict resulted in the largest damages award in North Carolina history, Smithfield -- the world's largest pork producer, and a multinational corporation based in China -- issued press releases promising to institute changes to its waste handling practices and implement green energy initiatives. If the company follows through on its new commitments, it should help reduce the impairment of quality of life of nearby community members and help alleviate the public health risks. The company continues to contest the damages verdicts on appeal, however, as a variety of nonprofit groups have mobilized to prepare amicus briefs in support of the residents.
We believe our efforts on behalf of hog farm neighbors will result in long-term benefits to our State and our citizens.
Brown , et. al. v. Duke Energy: Increased protections for over 400 neighbors of coal ash ponds
LEAD COUNSEL: Mona Lisa Wallace and John Hughes, Wallace & Graham, P.A., Salisbury, N.C.
CO-COUNSEL: Bryan Brice and Catherine Cralle Jones, Law Office of F. Bryan Brice, Jr., Raleigh, NC; Cary L. McDougal, Baron & Budd, PC, Dallas, Texas
As background, Duke Energy is the nation’s largest public utility. Many of Duke Energy’s energy plants burn coal to make energy. For decades, Duke Energy has stored the byproduct of burning coal, coal ash, in open, unlined ponds at its coal-fired power plants. In 2014, a coal ash spill at the Dan River plant exposed the potential for the heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, manganese, vanadium and other carcinogens, in ash to contaminate water, including the groundwater near the homes.
Families received “do not drink” letters, accompanied by supplies of bottled water for bathing and drinking purposes. Families were outraged and scared.
On August 23, 2017, Amy Brown of Belmont and Deborah Graham of Salisbury, along with representatives of other neighborhoods near Duke power plants, filed a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit sought injunctive relief and damages against Duke Energy Carolinas, LLC and Duke Energy Progress, LLC, and asked the court to determine the rights of the local homeowners and of Duke under a financial supplement agreement Duke offered.
After a lengthy process, W&G was successful negotiating new releases and creating better terms and protections for families. Coal ash neighbors obtained the following relief:
- Improved release forms which removed language that would have forced neighbors to agree that Duke had fully compensated them for all harm past and future;
- Preserved claims for children and employees;
- Increased protection to the neighbors, placing the responsibility on accountable parties for damage or repairs arising during the city-water connections;
- Preserved claims for future damages or injuries;
- Preserved claims for all air, home, or non-ground water environmental contamination claims that may exist in the future caused by Duke Energy;
By working together and cooperating, the clean water goals of the coal ash neighbors are continuing to be accomplished.