Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation Friday that would have limited monetary damages in civil lawsuits filed by neighbors of hog and poultry farm operations when judges determine the stench from animal waste is a nuisance.
Cooper said the measure, which now returns to the General Assembly for a potential override, improperly gave special protection to industrial 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. Weakening these legal remedies, he said, “can allow real harm to homeowners, the environment and everyday North Carolinians.”
The measure would restrict compensatory damages against farming and forestry operations to value of lost property or the rental value of affected properties. Critics called it a violation of property rights or a favor to the politically well-connected factory farming industry.
The bill was prompted by pending federal lawsuits by about 500 rural residents against Murphy-Brown LLC, the North Carolina-based hog production division of Virginia’s Smithfield Foods. The companies are U.S. subsidiaries of a 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, doesn’t alter the current rules on punitive damages a jury could assess.
The House and Senate approved the measure last week by veto-proof margins, but GOP Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County farmer and the bill’s chief spokesman, said legislators would assess the situation before attempting an override.
“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 the veto, saying people who can’t fully use their own property because of animal waste odors, flies and other inconveniences from industrial farming shouldn’t be limited in the amounts they can sue for.
“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, 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 Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance estimate about 60,000 North Carolina homes are within a half-mile of livestock operations, the range within which families are mostly likely to pursue lawsuits to stop an alleged nuisance.
The veto marks the fourth by Cooper, a Democrat, since taking office Jan. 1. The Republican-controlled General Assembly has overridden the previous three.
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