Missouri Jury Awards Residents $11 Million in Damages from Living Under Cloud of Stench Caused by Industrial Hog Farms

Verdict reached against Premium Standard Farms, subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, and ContiGroup; Families in town of Berlin, MO live near 4,300-acre compound where 200,000 hogs fattened for slaughter annually; Smithfield's Concentrated Animal Feed Operation generates some 83 million gallons of hog waste per year

Case won by Speer Law Firm, Middleton Law Firm and Seeger Weiss represents largest verdict on record in hog odor case; some 250 claimants remaining in cases against Premium Standard and ContiGroup

Mar 05, 2010, 13:58 ET from The Speer Law Firm

KANSAS CITY, Mo., March 5 /PRNewswire/ -- A state court jury in Jackson County, Missouri returned a collective $11,050,000 verdict against industrial hog producers Premium Standard Farms, Inc., a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods (NYSE: SFD), and the privately held ContiGroup Companies (previously Continental Grain) in favor of residents living near the defendants' vast farm operations in northern Missouri.  The verdict, covering 11 years of damages, is the largest monetary award against a hog farm in an odor nuisance case.

Law firms The Middleton Firm, Seeger Weiss LLP and the Speer Law Firm represented the seven households, who filed their case in 2002.

Plaintiffs, some of whom have owned their farms for well over 100 years and spanning five generations, alleged that relentless and extreme odors emanating from defendants' finishing farm – known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs – created an unreasonable nuisance.  Family members testified at trial that the smell was intense enough to prevent them from venturing outdoors on many days.

After hearing nearly 5 weeks of evidence centering on defendants' land application of massive quantities of liquid hog manure, maintenance of multiple-acre wastewater lagoons, and other odor-producing activities at the Homan farm in Gentry County, MO, the 12-person jury agreed.  Their verdict was delivered on March 4, 2010.  

In the early 1990s, PSF bought and leased some 4,300 acres in the community of Berlin, Missouri, to create a "finishing farm," processing an estimated 200,000 hogs per year.  The swine are brought into the facility weighing approximately 60 pounds and are grown to 260 pounds for slaughter.  Each hog lives its entire adult life in a single hog pen, with no ability to roam.  Berlin is located in Gentry County some 80 miles north of Kansas City.

The odors emanating from the hogs come from multiple sources.  The hogs excrete waste into a slatted floor, which collects in basins beneath each barn, where it is evacuated through a piped flushing system that deposits it in four-to-five acre lagoons located across the property.  Collectively, the lake-sized lagoons collect some 83 million gallons of hog waste during the course of a year – generating enormous quantities of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide that can be detected for miles.  The Berlin facility houses 80 barns, each holding 1,000 hogs at a time.  

The waste is continually pumped out of the lagoons, which the defendants argued was used as fertilizer.  "In reality, the jury recognized that the pumping is merely a disguised form of waste disposal – with the farms releasing far more effluent than the land can possibly absorb," said Charles F. Speer, who first started representing PSF neighbors in the mid-1990s.  "The odors and flies coming off this farm have devastated the lives of these fine Missouri citizens.  For them, it's been a living torment."

"The families who brought this case have been living under a toxic cloud of hog waste produced by Premium Standard for more than 11 years," said lead trial counsel Richard H. Middleton, Jr. of Savannah, GA.   "Defendants claimed their operations complied with state environmental regulations – however, this trial showed that PSF produced industrial-scale pollution with complete lack of regard for the extreme toxicity its operation caused for its neighbors, day in and day out."

Co-trial counsel, Stephen A. Weiss of New York City added: "Rather than accept responsibility for their actions like a good neighbor, these defendants continue to deflect blame.  We've offered repeatedly to sit down with their representatives to try to forge a fair resolution, but they continue to choose the courtroom over the settlement table.  If I were a Smithfield shareholder today, I'd be none too pleased with their chosen path."  

The $11 million verdict represents one of the largest jury awards in Jackson County in the last year.  The ruling follows a $4.5 million verdict in 2006 against Premium Standard Farms on behalf of six plaintiffs, a case also won by the trial team of Messrs. Speer, Middleton and Weiss.  

"It's time these agri-businesses get serious and start taking care of what continues to be a serious problem with the pollution caused by their factory farm operations," Mr. Middleton added.  "Their battalions of high-priced lawyers are not going to make the stench go away."

The three lawyers represent another 250 or so plaintiffs whose cases against Premium Standard Farms are still pending in Jackson County and various counties in northern Missouri.

The case caption is Owens, et al v. ContiGroup Companies, et al.


Allan Ripp 212-262-7477 arippnyc@aol.com

The Speer Law Firm; Charles F. Speer, Esq. (816) 472-3560

SOURCE The Speer Law Firm