Civil trial over hog odors opens in Kansas City

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 | 11:31 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Fourteen rural northwest Missouri residents who received $100,000 apiece in a 1999 lawsuit against Premium Standard Farms are asking a Jackson County jury to give them more money for what they say are intolerable smells coming from an 80,000-head hog confinement in Gentry County.

But a Premium Standard attorney said Wednesday that manure and other farm smells wafting off the 2,000-square-acre hog complex 80 miles north of Kansas City are just part of life in an agricultural area.

In opening statements Wednesday in a civil trial, John Harmon told jurors that the plaintiffs — 15 in all, including seven couples who received money in 1999 — might not be fond of the smells from PSF's Homan farm near Berlin, Mo.

But he said the families are not suffering "substantial impairment" from those odors, a benchmark under Missouri law he said must be met to qualify as a nuisance.

"It's not enough to point out that hogs stink," he said. "They do."

At issue is whether a hog operation that complies with state environmental regulations must meet a different standard when dealing with neighbors.

Richard Middleton, a Savannah, Ga.-based attorney for the plaintiffs, said the state threshold for odor violations is not the same one that should be used when determining whether the quality of life for neighbors is diminished by the smells.

He said that while Premium Standard promised to spend millions of dollars to alleviate the odors from the hog farm, "for 10 years they have done nothing."

Middleton described his clients as lifelong residents of the area who have lived in their homes for decades. Most were farmers who raised various types of livestock over the years, he said, but who now can't enjoy their property because of the hog farm that produces roughly 200,000 hogs a year.

Kansas City attorney Charlie Speer, who has won almost $10 million from Premium Standard and its affiliates since 1999, says the current case is one of hundreds he has pending in Missouri against large hog operations. Last year he lauded a $1.2 million settlement in an unrelated southwest Missouri case as having "set the bar" for future settlements.

Speer, who expects the trial to last about three weeks, has tried to paint Premium Standard and its parent company, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, as huge companies sucking millions of dollars out of the state and sending it to wealthy executives on the East Coast.

But PSF attorneys contend Speer's lawsuits are driven only by money and are causing great damage to Missouri's agricultural economy.

"They've made an industry out of filing nuisance cases, the effects of which cripple the biggest industry in Missouri," Jean Paul Bradshaw, an attorney for Premium Standard and Smithfield Foods, told The Associated Press late last summer. "It's no secret now is a bad time in the hog industry."

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