Judicial Watch: Judge Reduces Damages Award Against Big Hog
Last week, the federal judge in the first big lawsuit by hog farm neighbors against Big Hog in North Carolina substantially reduced the money awarded to the neighbors.
Applying a North Carolina law designed to limit “punitive damages” awards, the trial judge cut that portion of the awards from $50 million to $3.25 million. That sum was calculated based on multiplying the compensatory damages in the case by three, as dictated by the state damages law.
“Compensatory” damages are those found necessary to cover the value of actual costs to the plaintiff. “Punitive” damages are the extra amount intended to discourage the defendant from continuing the same damaging behavior. They can be legally appropriate in a case in which the defendant is found to have knowingly followed a damaging practice because they thought it was cheaper than steps to prevent the injuries suffered by the other side.
In this case, the jury accepted the plaintiff neighbors’ contention that such punitive damages were needed to persuade the defendant corporation to change its behavior. The defendant, Murphy-Brown, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, a $15 billion international corporate giant which claims to be the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer. The plaintiffs sued Murphy-Brown rather than the local farm because they argue that the corporation’s contract terms required the practices which resulted in damage to the farm’s neighbors. Those practices include the waste lagoons and aerial spraying of wastes which “sends the animal waste airborne and pushes the stench, clouds of flies and unwelcome film their way to coat their homes, cars and other outdoor surfaces.”
Aware that their ability to continue their cheap waste disposal practices likely depends on the courts, Smithfield plans to appeal, despite the drastically reduced damages. This case is only the first of many already working through the courts.