UPDATE: Missouri legislature endorses limits on hog farm suits

Wednesday, February 23, 2011 | 6:10 p.m. CST; updated 6:19 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 23, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation limiting lawsuits against large-scale animal farms got a double endorsement Wednesday from Missouri lawmakers who expressed concerns that repeated suits over foul odors could lead some hog producers to leave the state.

Similar bills given initial approval in both the House and Senate would affect nuisance lawsuits against the owners of property used for such things as animal or crop production. It would limit the compensatory damages people could win in such cases and restrict their ability to sue multiple times.

The legislation is prompted partly by concerns raised by Premium Standard Farms, which employs about 1,100 people mostly in the economically depressed communities of northern Missouri, and had nearly 100,000 sows projected to produce about 1.8 million hogs for market last year. A processing plant in Milan, which employs an additional 1,400 workers, gets the majority of its business from Premium Standard.

Nuisance lawsuits have resulted in multimillion dollar awards to Premium Standard. Last year, for example, a group of 15 northwest Missouri residents were awarded a total of $11 million, leading Premium Standard officials to warn that continued lawsuits could push the company out of the state.

Supporters of the legislation echoed those concerns during debate Wednesday in the House and Senate.

"For years and years, the farmers of our state have been able to produce food for our tables," said sponsoring Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah. But "in recent years, agriculture has come under attack by essentially out-of-state lawyers."

Critics of the legislation claimed the bill amounts to an attack on agriculture by limiting the legal rights of longtime family farmers who have large-scale corporate farms move in nearby.

"We're putting our thumb on the scale of justice and on the lives of rural Missourians," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, a former judge.

In cases where farms are found to be a permanent nuisance to their suing neighbors, the legislation would limit compensatory damages to the reduction in the fair market value of the neighbors' property. If the farms are found to pose a temporary nuisance, compensatory damages would be calculated by the reduction in the fair rental value of the property. The legislation also would require that subsequent lawsuits by the neighbors be treated as permanent nuisance claims — eliminating the potential for multiple temporary nuisance lawsuits against a farm by the same neighbors.

The legislation would not prohibit people from recovering damages for other claims, such as lawsuits alleging discomfort, sickness or emotional distress.

The House and Senate each defeated Democratic-sponsored amendments that would have exempted from the legislation any property owners who were present before the defendant's activities that prompted the nuisance lawsuits. Supporters of the bill said the amendment would have negated the purpose of the legislation.

Opponents of the bill said it could make large hog farms less likely to limit their pollution.

"It severely takes away the disincentive that these lawsuits create to make corporate-controlled factory farms be accountable — to be good neighbors — to the family farms that have been there for generations," said Tim Gibbons, a spokesman for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

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