Fourth Circuit Affirms Smithfield Subsidiary Willfully and Wantonly Interfered With Neighbors’ Property Rights


November 19, 2020

Fourth Circuit Affirms Smithfield Subsidiary Willfully and Wantonly Interfered With Neighbors’ Property Rights Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed that a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, Murphy-Brown LLC, is liable for compensatory and punitive damages to neighbors of a hog farm it controlled. In a 67-page opinion, the Court methodically addressed each of the seven issues Murphy-Brown raised, rejecting nearly all of them. The Court rejected MurphyBrown’s assertions that hog farmers were at fault, and not Murphy-Brown, as well as assertions that recent legislation applied to forbid pending litigation. The Court also rejected arguments that the testimony of a plaintiff expert witness was improperly admitted and the testimony of a defendant expert was improperly excluded. Regarding punitive damages, the Court recognized that the plaintiffs “provided evidence of [Murphy-Brown’s] deliberate corporate policies and evidence that [Murphy-Brown] knew these policies had associated harms.” There was “abundant evidence supporting [Murphy-Brown’s] conscious disregard of the conditions at Kinlaw Farms.” And Murphy-Brown’s “leadership persisted in mandating the culpable practices and participated in political efforts aimed at minimizing regulation of harms known to be associated with [MurphyBrown’s] chosen farming efforts.” The Court acknowledges that while there was ample evidence of Murphy-Brown’s willful misconduct justifying punitive damages, the district court should have limited the applicability of evidence regarding Smithfield’s financial status and remanded the case for new proceedings solely on the amount of punitive damages that should be awarded.

In his concurrence, Judge Wilkinson discussed how the hog farming industry is vital but required “responsible stewardship” to “account for [the] full impact on all stakeholders.” “Stakeholders do not just include consumers, suppliers, and employees; they include neighbors of hog facilities, children who go to school nearby, medical patients who rely on antibiotics, wildlife and water sports enthusiasts, and many more.”

Lead appellate counsel, Tillman J. Breckenridge of Breckenridge PLLC stated that he was pleased that “the Court of Appeals recognized that the jury was right – Smithfield willfully and wantonly interfered with our clients’ ability to live comfortably in their own homes.” He added that the decision “vindicates the hard work of the trial team, as the Court rebuked Smithfield and MurphyBrown’s practices.” Mona Lisa Wallace added that “we are thrilled at the positive outcome for our clients and the environment. We are especially glad that the Fourth Circuit recognized that the North Carolina jury got it right.” Lisa Blue noted that “we had faith in the jury systems and in the wonderful jurors who dedicated many weeks to understanding the plight of these North Carolina citizens and we’re delighted to see the jurors’ thoughtful consideration and decisions upheld.” Lead trial lawyer, Mike Kaeske further added: “I’m honored to have represented the most worthy group of clients of my career, and I’m grateful that the Court has so fully recognized the truth of their struggle.”

For the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal’s full opinion, click here: https://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinions/191019.P.pdf

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