Natural beauty blesses North Carolina residents. Clear lakes and lazy rivers provide refuge for swimmers and anglers. Fertile soil produces a bounty of crops for hard-working family farmers.
Until the world’s largest pork producer turned the charming habitat of Bladen County into a noisy, nauseating nightmare that made life unbearable. More than 500 rural citizens spent years fighting back against Smithfield Hog Production. Litigation teams representing the citizens, including Wallace & Graham, defeated the multinational conglomerate several times in civil trials. In November, a federal appeals court upheld a 2018 jury verdict that ruled Smithfield persisted in polluting its factory farms with carcasses and waste. Despite environmental practices and technology which could have mitigated the putrid smells.
Nuisance and punitive damages in five separate trials netted a record $500 million. Individual plaintiffs were awarded $750,000. North Carolina lawmakers restricted jury awards after the swine industry dialed up its lobbying efforts. U.S. District Judge Earl Britt whittled down $50 million designed to punish Smithfield and its Hong Kong-based owner WH Group Limited to $2.5 million. However, this is a massive win for Wallace and Graham and the people of Bladen County.
A victory for citizens and litigators
Still, the verdict was hailed as a victory for 10 neighbors of one pasture. The farm annually raised 15,000 hogs and disposed of massive amounts of feces and urine in open-air lagoons that spread fumes and attracted vermin. Now the company is spending tens of millions of dollars to install freezers and refrigerated trucks to store waste. And it is relocating access roads away from homes to reduce noise pollution caused by round-the-clock truck traffic.
It also was a major achievement for the team of lawyers that battled to improve quality of life for their mostly low-income clients and communities of color. The cases spanned seven years and involved 26 multi-plaintiff suits, hundreds of witnesses and challenges from numerous corporate defense firms. They prevailed each time they argued before a jury.
Moreover, the verdicts forced the food animal production industry to change its callous policies and make living conditions tolerable around their farms. They also cleared the way for environmental inspections and advanced how scientists can trace biological contamination through DNA evidence.
Holding corporations accountable
Environmental attorneys are committed to social justice and empowering North Carolinians who are unable to live comfortably in their own homes. Companies like WH Group, which has been valued at $1.3 billion, should be held accountable when they fail to invest in ways that can maintain quality of life for their neighbors.
Families who live in established communities have rights that deserve protection. Our work on this case won us the 2020 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.