On April 26, 2018, a North Carolina jury awarded 10 neighbors $51 million in the first North Carolina hog farming case to be heard before U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt. Almost a week later on May 9, 2018, Judge Britt reduced the jury’s award of $23 million in punitive damages to nearly $3 million in punitive damages because of a North Carolina state law that limits punitive damages to $250,000-per-plaintiff. This was the first case tried of 26 lawsuits brought by 500 neighbors complaining about hog operations in eastern North Carolina against Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.
On June 30, 2018 a separate North Carolina jury awarded more than $25 million to a couple in the eastern part of the state who filed a nuisance lawsuit against Smithfield Foods for the swarms of flies, stench, rumbling trucks and other downsides of the hog farm next door. In the Williamses’ case, the jury awarded $65,000 to each in compensatory damages and $12.5 million apiece in punitive damages. But the state law that caps punitive damages limits what the Williamses can receive to no more than $250,000 each. Altogether, the jury’s $25.13 million award is likely to be reduced to $630,000.
On Friday August 2, 2018, in the third case tried against Smithfield Foods, a federal jury awarded more than $470 million to six neighbors of a hog farm in Pender County, North Carolina, who complained of excessive noise, odor, flies, buzzards and other disruptions to their quality of life. The jury awarded $75 million in punitive damages to each of the six neighbors, for a total punitive damages award of $450 million. The jury also awarded between $3 million to $5 million in compensatory damages to each neighbor. The North Carolina punitive damages cap is expected to lower the amount of punitive damages to $1.5 million or $250,000 for each of the six neighbors. These first three trials were among five initial lawsuits against Smithfield Foods designated to go to trial, giving both sides an opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their cases.
Similar to North Carolina’s standard for punitive damages, Georgia requires clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences” before punitive damages will be awarded. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b); compare N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-15 (punitive damages may be awarded if the Defendant is liable for compensatory damages and the claimant proves by clear and convincing evidence that fraud, malice, or willful or wanton conduct was present and related to the injury for which the compensatory damages were recovered). Unlike North Carolina, which caps punitive damages per plaintiff, in Georgia, the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded in any one case, regardless of the number of plaintiffs, is limited to a maximum of $250,000.00. O.C.G.A. 51-12-5.1(g). However, in Georgia, if the jury finds that the defendant acted, or failed to act, with the specific intent to cause harm, then the amount of punitive damages the jury can award is unlimited.