Lawsuits Take Their Toll on CAFO Owners
by Diane Rosenberg
Executive Director, Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors, Inc.
In February, this year’s first CAFO nuisance jury trial took place at Wapello County District Court. Ten bellwether plaintiffs of a larger plaintiff group living near approximately 4500 hogs in Wapello County sued CAFO owner Richard Warren, Warren Family Pork, and Cargill Pork (now JBS) over noxious manure odors impacting their quality of life.
Proponents and opponents of factory farms eagerly anticipated the outcome. Prior to the trial, Richard Warren and Warren Family Pork filed a “Confessed Judgment”, entering into an out-of-court Confidential Settlement Agreement with the plaintiffs. Many CAFO opponents consider this an important victory in and of itself. Unfortunately, despite vigorous arguments by plaintiff’s legal counsel, the jury decided for Cargill/JBS.
Nonetheless, the issue of CAFOs being held accountable to neighbors is just beginning. This trial was the first of many CAFO lawsuits now in litigation with the Speer, Middleton and Sykes legal team throughout Southeast Iowa. CAFO nuisance cases pose a significant commitment of time, money, public inquiry and uncertainty for CAFO owners. It’s believed the Warren family and Cargill/JBS incurred monumental legal fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over a taxing 2-3 year litigation period.
Iowa Pork Producer Association attorney Eldon McAfee knows all too well the cost and stress of nuisance lawsuits for CAFO owners, addressing this at the January 2016 Iowa Pork Congress. Each year, Mr. McAfee gives a legal overview of CAFO nuisance cases with recommendations to CAFO owners.
In 2014, Mr. McAfee spent only a few minutes reviewing nuisance lawsuits noting there hadn’t been any cases since 2008. This year he dedicated a full third of his presentation to 12 current cases, raising serious concerns to the industry. We quote some of Mr. McAfee’s words of warning:
On the number of CAFO nuisance cases in litigation: “I’ve been following cases … since around 1993 or 1994. Right now we have as many nuisance cases on file in Iowa… that I know of at any one time.”
On the cost and stress of a lawsuit: “I can guarantee you that every producer on that list of 12 sincerely wishes they weren’t on that list….”
On aspects of the Cargill trial: “When an attorney uses a term that something is unique or interesting, hang on to your wallet because that means it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of legal work.”
On a $525,000 jury award to a Poweshiek County plaintiff in 2015: “That is not what we as livestock producers wanted to see.”
On following Mr. McAfee’s recommendations to avoid lawsuits: “I’ll be the first to tell you, you can do every one of these things…and still get sued. There is no magic bullet.”
In JFAN’s opinion, these lawsuits aren’t going away. There will be wins and losses, but anytime a CAFO nuisance case goes to court, it serves as a significant deterrent, and the pork industry groans.
Anyone considering a CAFO should think long and hard about the ramifications of building a confinement against their neighbors’ wishes.