August 10, 2018
US farm, pork groups decry gag order concerning lawsuits against Smithfield subsidiary
A court-ordered gag rule, which prevented hog farmers in North Carolina, US, and their neighbours from discussing litigations made against them, had sparked protests from farm and pork groups in the country.
In response, attorney for those groups sought for the overturning of the gag order with the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit at Richmond, Virginia.
Imposed in late June, the order concerns lawsuits launched against Murphy-Brown, a hog production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Several farms connected to Murphy-Brown are independent family businesses, which were alleged to have cause nuisance with noise and odours at their farms. In three nuisance cases, juries had determined that these businesses are to pay a combined US$99 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Overall, 26 lawsuits have been filed.
Justifying the implementation of the order, Judge Earl Britt of the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, expressed concerned that increased publicity and the "volume and scope of prejudicial publicity" in the first two cases could influence jurors' decision.
However, a joint American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) an North Carolina Farm Bureau (NCFB) statement decried the barring of farmers from "publicly discussing the conditions and practices on the farms and the devastating effects of the lawsuits on their rural communities."
Both organisations also stated that, although Murphy-Brown is the sole defendant in the lawsuits, many farms linked to the company are family business that could potentially lost their contracts and thus suffer a dent to their incomes due to the litigation.
"The best-informed people to speak about the farms and communities affected by these lawsuits are the member-farmers who are themselves in the cross-hairs, along with their spouses, children, extended family, friends, and neighbors," the joint statement said.
"These people know better than anyone the stakes at issue in nuisance lawsuits, the damage they inflict on rural communities, the toll they take on farm families, and the most effective (and ineffective) strategies for dealing with them in and out of the courtroom."
In addition, AFBF and NCFB feared the gag order infringes the freedom of speech which could be exercised in this matter.
"Neither AFBF nor NCFB will be able to effectively educate its members on these issues, or effectively advocate for legislative solutions to lawsuit abuse aimed at responsible livestock farms, if it cannot hear and disseminate the words of its own members who have personally experienced these suits," AFBF an NCFB added.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) had also voiced their opposition to the gag order.
"The greatest risk of [jury] prejudice isn't the existence of publicity; it is the existence of one-sided publicity that has resulted from the gag order," NPPC and NCPC said.