Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Column follow: Big verdict in Mo. hog odor case

A lawyer friend read Sunday's column about David Kirby's new book, "Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poulty Farms to Humans and the Environment" and sent along a note about a former classmate whose law firm recently won a big damage award in a Missouri case invloving animal farm owners -- said to the be the "largest verdict on record in a hog odor case."

His email noted, "Rick Middleton of the Middleton Firm in Savannah, Georgia, and other firms in early March concluded a lengthy jury trial which resulted in an $11 million dollar verdict in trial related to this issue. They formed the Center to Expose & Close Animal Factories. In looking at the materials on this website, they posted an interesting memorandum on an economic analysis of litigation from the defense perspective."

Here's a link to the story.

And here’s the top of the PRNewswire release:
Missouri Jury Awards Residents $11 Million in Damages from Living Under Cloud of Stench Caused by Industrial Hog Farms
Verdict reached against Premium Standard Farms, subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, and ContiGroup; Families in town of Berlin, MO live near 4,300-acre compound where 200,000 hogs fattened for slaughter annually; Smithfield's Concentrated Animal Feed Operation generates some 83 million gallons of hog waste per year

Case won by Speer Law Firm, Middleton Law Firm and Seeger Weiss represents largest verdict on record in hog odor case; some 250 claimants remaining in cases against Premium Standard and ContiGroup
KANSAS CITY, Mo., March 5 /PRNewswire/ -- A state court jury in Jackson County, Missouri returned a collective $11,050,000 verdict against industrial hog producers Premium Standard Farms, Inc., a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods (NYSE: SFD), and the privately held ContiGroup Companies (previously Continental Grain) in favor of residents living near the defendants' vast farm operations in northern Missouri. The verdict, covering 11 years of damages, is the largest monetary award against a hog farm in an odor nuisance case.
Law firms The Middleton Firm, Seeger Weiss LLP and the Speer Law Firm represented the seven households, who filed their case in 2002.
Plaintiffs, some of whom have owned their farms for well over 100 years and spanning five generations, alleged that relentless and extreme odors emanating from defendants' finishing farm – known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs – created an unreasonable nuisance. Family members testified at trial that the smell was intense enough to prevent them from venturing outdoors on many days.
After hearing nearly 5 weeks of evidence centering on defendants' land application of massive quantities of liquid hog manure, maintenance of multiple-acre wastewater lagoons, and other odor-producing activities at the Homan farm in Gentry County, MO, the 12-person jury agreed. Their verdict was delivered on March 4, 2010.
In the early 1990s, PSF bought and leased some 4,300 acres in the community of Berlin, Missouri, to create a "finishing farm," processing an estimated 200,000 hogs per year. The swine are brought into the facility weighing approximately 60 pounds and are grown to 260 pounds for slaughter. Each hog lives its entire adult life in a single hog pen, with no ability to roam. Berlin is located in Gentry County some 80 miles north of Kansas City.
The odors emanating from the hogs come from multiple sources. The hogs excrete waste into a slatted floor, which collects in basins beneath each barn, where it is evacuated through a piped flushing system that deposits it in four-to-five acre lagoons located across the property. Collectively, the lake-sized lagoons collect some 83 million gallons of hog waste during the course of a year – generating enormous quantities of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide that can be detected for miles. The Berlin facility houses 80 barns, each holding 1,000 hogs at a time.
The waste is continually pumped out of the lagoons, which the defendants argued was used as fertilizer. "In reality, the jury recognized that the pumping is merely a disguised form of waste disposal – with the farms releasing far more effluent than the land can possibly absorb," said Charles F. Speer, who first started representing PSF neighbors in the mid-1990s. "The odors and flies coming off this farm have devastated the lives of these fine Missouri citizens. For them, it's been a living torment."
"The families who brought this case have been living under a toxic cloud of hog waste produced by Premium Standard for more than 11 years," said lead trial counsel Richard H. Middleton, Jr. of Savannah, GA. "Defendants claimed their operations complied with state environmental regulations – however, this trial showed that PSF produced industrial-scale pollution with complete lack of regard for the extreme toxicity its operation caused for its neighbors, day in and day out."
Co-trial counsel, Stephen A. Weiss of New York City added: "Rather than accept responsibility for their actions like a good neighbor, these defendants continue to deflect blame. We've offered repeatedly to sit down with their representatives to try to forge a fair resolution, but they continue to choose the courtroom over the settlement table. If I were a Smithfield shareholder today, I'd be none too pleased with their chosen path."

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