Cooper vetoes bill limiting NC farm nuisance damages

Published 4:12 pm Friday, May 5, 2017

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation Friday limiting certain monetary damages in civil lawsuits filed by neighbors of hog and poultry farm operations if a court determines the stench from animal waste is officially a nuisance.

Cooper said the measure, which now returns to the General Assembly for a potential override, gave special protection to certain types of farm operations and opens the door to weakening civil actions in other nuisance matters.

“The agriculture and forestry industries are vital to our economy and we should encourage them to thrive. But nuisance laws can be used to protect property rights and make changes for good,” Cooper said in his veto message, adding that eroding nuisance actions “can allow real harm to homeowners, the environment and everyday North Carolinians.”

The measure would restrict compensatory damages in these civil lawsuits against farming and forestry operations up to the lost property value or rental value of affected properties.

The bill was prompted by pending federal lawsuits filed by about 500 rural residents against Murphy-Brown LLC, the North Carolina-based hog production division of Virginia’s Smithfield Foods. They are U.S. subsidiaries of the Chinese company that is the world’s largest pork producer. But the original legislation had been amended so that limits would not apply to pending cases. The measure, if it becomes law, also wouldn’t limit any punitive damages a jury could assess.

The House and Senate had approved the measure last week by veto-proof margins but additional votes would have to occur. GOP Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County farmer, and the bill’s chief spokesman, said legislators would assess the situation before any action.

“It’s very unfortunate that the governor chose to veto this bill that was well intended to keep our agriculture community viable and continuing to produce quality and affordable food for our citizens,” Dixon said in a phone interview.

Environmental groups praised Cooper’s action, saying people suffering from animal waste odors, flies and other inconveniences in fully using their own property shouldn’t be limited in the scope of their civil action. They’ve suggested the bill was a favor to a politically well-connected industry.

“North Carolina families and property owners should be able to exercise their right to obtain just compensation, to breathe healthy air and to have the quality of life they deserve,” Dan Crawford with the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters said in a release.

The North Carolina Pork Council, which backed the legislation, said it is disappointed with Cooper’s decision and urged lawmakers to override the veto, saying in a statement that the bill “strikes a balance in providing clarity and certainty to farmers while ensuring that property owners remain protected.”

The council pointed to several areas in state law where limitations on civil liability already exist, including horse farm operators, bars and roller skating rinks.

The veto marks the fourth by Cooper, a Democrat, since taking office Jan. 1. The Republican-controlled General Assembly has overridden the previous three.