A Missouri couple this week was awarded $1.1 million in a lawsuit settlement that was based on problems caused by a nearby hog farm. The hog barns were erected less than a quarter mile from the plaintiffs’ home and one of the six barns was erected without a construction permit, thus violating the Missouri Department of Natural Resources regulations. The farm had also operated for six years without an operating permit from the department.
There are numerous takeaway messages from this ruling; in general, few are positive for agriculture. The first message is that it appears the hog farm violated numerous regulations and one can neither be surprised nor disappointed in the fact they must face the music for failing to do things properly.
The lawsuit only covers losses up to the point of the settlement, which means additional damages could be assessed in the future. That effectively will put the hog farm out of business.
Needless to say, the $1.1-million settlement probably has attracted the attention of every trial lawyer in America, and the expectation is that these types of suits will now escalate substantially.
The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) was quick to issue a statement condemning corporate farming and trumpeting the result of the case as being a good thing for rural communities and smaller farmers. While few would condone the activities of this hog farm, the result of this legal action likely signals a new turn in tactics for the anti-meat crowd that should concern anyone with an interest in property rights.
Groups aligned against agriculture have learned that they can’t succeed legislatively against informed lawmakers. Thus, they turned to mounting ballot initiatives where creative slogans, good wordsmithing and a lot of dollars are able to accomplish what politicking legislators could not; a case in point is California's Proposition 2.
But such public campaigns are expensive options, even for these well-funded groups, with success largely limited to states with large urban populations that don’t have a strong connection to agriculture – the type of audience most likely to buy into anti-corporate, populist, and animal welfare/environmental rhetoric.
But taking the issue to the courts moves the battle to ground even more favorable to these groups. In the venue of the courts, these groups' huge advantage in funding is magnified still further. In addition, there is no need to drive public opinion to their side.
At first blush this perhaps doesn’t make a lot of sense, but tort lawyers have long known that such cases don’t necessarily revolve around the facts as much as finding sympathetic jurors. And in this arena, even losing can be a victory, because even waging a successful defense can be financially devastating to the defendants in the case.
For a long time, it was assumed that agriculture would be immune from these legal tactics because the pockets weren’t deep enough to make it worth a crusading lawyer’s time, but that’s changed. Similar to the U.S. medical profession where doctors and hospitals were forced to buy massive insurance policies, which in turn made them more attractive targets, livestock operations are today purchasing insurance policies to the point that even small operations might be capable of paying $1 million or more in settlements.
This is an issue that goes beyond rising insurance rates; it’s being referred to as the Sarah Palin model. It doesn’t matter if you win the battles, constant lawsuits can simply destroy one’s viability even if you win.
Wayne Pacelle, HSUS boss, was quick to jump out on his blog about this ruling. Pacelle’s twisted logic about how his organization isn’t against rural America but rather factory farming would likely appeal to just about anyone, but HSUS’s record and actions run deeply contrary the group’s claims.
As an industry we must stop giving our opponents the occasional ammunition to shoot us with, and we had better begin preparing for what promises to be some costly legal battles.