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North Carolina’s Smithfield lawsuits: Could Ohio’s farmers face similar results?

By Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate Ohio State University Agricultural and Resource Law Program

Over the last several months, three nuisance cases have been decided against Smithfield Foods in federal court in North Carolina. The juries in the cases have found Smithfield’s large farms, with thousands of hogs, and the odor, traffic, and flies that come along with them, to be a nuisance to neighboring landowners. Smithfield has been ordered to pay hefty damages to the neighbors, and more cases against the company remain to be decided. Given the outcomes of the cases that have been decided thus far, farmers and landowners in Ohio might be wondering how Ohio law compares to North Carolina law as pertains to agricultural nuisances.

 

Ohio’s right-to-farm law

Many states, including both Ohio and North Carolina, have “right-to-farm” legislation, which in part is meant to protect agriculture from nuisance lawsuits such as those filed against Smithfield. While nearly every state has a right-to-farm statute, they do differ in language and how they go about protecting agriculture.

Ohio farmers have right-to-farm protection in two parts of the Revised Code. ORC Chapter 929 establishes “agricultural districts.” Generally, in order to place land in an agricultural district, the owner of the land must file an application with the county auditor. Certain requirements must be met in order for an application to be accepted. Slightly different rules apply if the land in question is within a municipal corporation or is being annexed by a municipality. If the application is accepted, the land is placed in an agricultural district for five years. The owner may submit a renewal application after that time is up.

Being part of an agricultural district in Ohio can help farmers and landowners to defend against civil lawsuits. ORC 929.04 reads:

In a civil action for nuisances involving agricultural activities, it is a complete defense if:

  • The agricultural activities were conducted within an agricultural district;
  • Agricultural activities were established within the agricultural district prior to the plaintiff’s activities or interest on which the action is based;
  • The plaintiff was not involved in agricultural production; and
  • The agricultural activities were not in conflict with federal, state, and local laws and rules relating to the alleged nuisance or were conducted in accordance with generally accepted agriculture practices.

The ORC’s chapter on nuisances provides additional protection for those “engaged in agriculture-related activities.” Under ORC 3767.13, people who are practicing agricultural activities “outside a municipal corporation, in accordance with generally accepted agricultural practices, and in such a manner so as not to have a substantial, adverse effect on public health, safety, or welfare” are typically exempt from claims of nuisance due to farm noise, smells, etc.

 

North Carolina’s right-to-farm law

Much like Ohio, North Carolina farmland can be part of an “agricultural district.” This program is meant to protect agricultural land — land that is part of an agricultural district is must be used for agriculture for at least 10 years. However, unlike Ohio’s law, North Carolina does not specifically spell out that land in agricultural districts will be protected from nuisance suits when the landowner follows the rules of the agricultural district. North Carolina’s law does state that one of the purposes of agricultural districts is to “increase protection from nuisance suits and other negative impacts on properly managed farms,” but unlike Ohio, it does not explicitly state that being part of an agricultural district is a defense to a nuisance lawsuit.

North Carolina also has a statute which specifically spells out the right-to-farm. In response to the recent jury decisions, however, North Carolina has changed its right-to-farm law. The original law read:

(a) No agricultural or forestry operation or any of its appurtenances shall be or become a nuisance, private or public, by any changed conditions in or about the locality outside of the operation after the operation has been in operation for more than one year, when such an operation was not a nuisance at the time the operation began.

(a1) The provisions of subsection (a) of this section shall not apply when the plaintiff demonstrates that the agricultural or forestry operation has undergone a fundamental change. A fundamental change does not include any of the following:

  • A change in ownership or size.
  • An interruption of farming for a period of no more than three years.
  • Participation in a government-sponsored agricultural program.
  • Employment of new technology.
  • A change in the type of agricultural or forestry product produced.

The original law did not protect agricultural operations if their actions were negligent or improper. Following the first decision against Smithfield, the North Carolina legislature overrode the Governor’s veto to implement amendments to the state’s right-to-farm law. In the amendments (sections 106-701 and 106-702) the legislature substantially changed the language of the law, making what constitutes a nuisance much more explicit and dependent on certain factors. What is more, the new version of the law places limits on when plaintiffs can recover punitive damages for a private nuisance action.

A comparison of the Ohio and North Carolina’s sections of legislation promoting the “right-to-farm” shows how different the two states are. Ohio’s legislative language makes it obvious that the meaning of the law is to protect agriculture from nuisance suits — by specifically stating that being in an agricultural district is a complete defense to nuisance, and that otherwise, agriculture is generally exempt from nuisance suits. North Carolina’s law concerning agricultural districts does not specifically state that being in such a district is a defense to nuisance, instead, it simply expresses the hope that districts will “increase protection from nuisance suits.” Furthermore, while North Carolina’s original right-to-farm law stated that agricultural operations do not “become a nuisance” due to changed conditions in the community, that language is not very specific. Ohio’s agricultural district language lays out exactly what must be done to have a complete defense against a nuisance lawsuit; North Carolina’s language in multiple parts of the General Statutes does not have the same degree of specificity.

 

Permit as a defense to nuisance

In addition to the right-to-farm law, under ORC 903.13, those owning, operating, or responsible for concentrated animal feeding facilities in Ohio have an affirmative defense to a private civil action for nuisance against them if the CAFO is “in compliance with best management practices” established in their installation of a disposal system or operation permits. North Carolina does not appear to have similar language protecting permitted farms in its General Statutes.

 

Other factors that may come into play

In the lawsuits against Smithfield farms, the lawyers for the plaintiffs (neighboring landowners) have continuously asserted that Smithfield has “means and ability” to “reduce the nuisance from existing facilities” by ending the use of “lagoon and sprayfield” systems at their farms. Plaintiffs stress that not only is Smithfield Foods, Inc. a large, wealthy, multinational company, but that they have also changed their lagoon and sprayfield practices outside of North Carolina. In lagoon and sprayfield systems, all waste is collected in an open-air lagoon and then sprayed on fields as fertilizer. The practice was first banned for new construction in North Carolina in 1997, and in 2007, the state permanently banned the practice for newly constructed swine facilities. Although many of the facilities in question were opened before any ban on the construction of lagoon and sprayfield facilities, the plaintiffs contend that changes made in other states mean Smithfield can afford to change in North Carolina. The ban on new lagoon and sprayfield systems in North Carolina, and evidence that Smithfield has used different practices to reduce the smell from the farms in other states, likely helped the juries in the cases that have been tried to date find that the farms are a nuisance to their neighbors. The above argument is something operators of livestock facilities in Ohio should be aware of. Although Ohio has not specifically banned lagoon and sprayfield systems like North Carolina has, the ability to change the system could still potentially be used to argue nuisance. Ohio operators are supposed to follow best management practices and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Field Office Technical guide when applying and storing manure, which include ways to reduce odor from manure and other applications, as well as reducing other types of nutrient pollution. Following such guidelines would likely help operators in any argument against nuisance.

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