March 4, 2010
Lawfirm Seeger Weiss brought home another victory against giant agro-business Premium Standard Farms, when a Missouri jury awarded $11.05 million to the 15 neighboring owners of small farms today. Co-founder Stephen A. Weiss has led the charge against these giant factory farms, whose careless and illegal disposal of waste products degrades the air and land around them. As co-lead counsel for the farmers’ whose lives and livelihoods had been handicapped by overpowering hog odors, Mr. Weiss proved to the jury, seated in Jackson County, Missouri, that Premium Standard Farms had failed to sufficiently address the problem in the 11 years since the Missouri Attorney General issued an order to do so. This verdict is the largest monetary award against a hog farm in an odor nuisance case.
The Berlin, Missouri factory farm processes roughly 200,000 hogs every year and houses about 80,000 at any given time. Nationwide, the average hog farm houses only 5,000 animals per year. These local farmers are no strangers to the realities of livestock and agriculture, but the staggering mass of bodies and waste contained within the Premium Standard hog farm overwhelmed them. The 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.
Law firms The Middleton Firm, Seeger Weiss LLP and the Speer Law Firm represented the seven households, who filed their case in 2002. 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 inGentry County, MO, the 12-person jury agreed. Their verdict was delivered on March 4, 2010, awarding nearly $1 million to each of the 13 farmers who lived next to the Premium Standard facility in Berlin with an another $325 thousand for two additional plaintiffs.
In the early 1990s, Premium Standard Farms bought and leased some 4,300 acres in the community of Berlin, Missouri, to create a “finishing farm,” which processes nearly a quarter million hogs per year. Premium Standard Farms is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods and the privately held ContiGroup Companies (previously Continental Grain). 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 Smithfieldshareholder 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. Premium Standard Farms has lost three of four trials brought against them because of hog odors, and after today’s verdict have been ordered to pay almost $21 million by juries.
“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.