$1.95 million awarded in hog farm suit

Source:  Joplin Globe (MO), May 7, 2011
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com

Twelve Barton County plaintiffs, who alleged their way of life was turned upside down when a factory hog farm began operations in 2007 near their rural homes, were awarded $1.95 million in damages Saturday by a jury in Henry County.

In closing arguments Friday, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, Charles Speer and Richard Middleton, had asked the jury to award $1 million in damages to each plaintiff. The attorneys also asked for punitive damages, but none were awarded.

Speer said the verdict was three times larger than the previous largest verdict by a jury in Henry County.

According to the instructions from Circuit Judge James Journey, nine or more members of the jury had to agree before any damages could be awarded. He told the jurors that “odors, flies or other emissions” had to “substantially impair” the plaintiffs’ use of their properties before they could award damages.

Other issues, he said, were irrelevant to their decision.

Journey told the jurors that if they found substantial impairment, the defendants could be liable for punitive damages if the defendants exhibited “evil motive” or “reckless indifference.”

The jury found that one of the defendants, Paul Stefan, a Barton County resident who permitted the dispersal of hog waste on land he owns near the plaintiffs, would not pay any damages.

The jury found that Synergy, the Iowa-based company that owned the hogs, and Kenoma, the local company that raised the hogs, were liable for damages. It was not clear Saturday whether the companies would appeal the jury’s decision.

The jury awarded $225,000 each to Zach and Debbie Mcguire, and Darvin and Tish Bentlage; $350,000 to Gregory Harris; $175,000 each to Carol Huber, Dale Huber, and Kevin Huber; $75,000 each to Walter Howrey and Cindy Howrey, and $25,000 each to Helen Manke and the estate of her late husband, William Manke.

The trial, which lasted for two weeks, concluded at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Deliberations, which continued until 7 p.m. Friday, resumed at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and concluded with the verdict at 2 p.m.

On Thursday, the jury boarded a bus to tour the Synergy-Kenoma operations in Barton County, and to view the closeness of the plaintiff’s homes to those operations.

In his closing arguments, Middleton told the jury that Synergy came to Barton County from Iowa to skirt Iowa’s tougher regulations with regard to the operation of factory hog farms. He said the operation produced 200,000 hogs annually and millions of tons of waste that was dispersed on a footprint that was not large enough to handle that much waste.

He said, “They are responsible for the harms and losses that they have caused these plaintiffs.” Middleton said some of the farms operated by plaintiffs had been in their families for more than 100 years.

“They lived there long before Synergy came to Richland Township. They had their dreams, their hopes and their happiness wrapped up in the property they had invested in,” Middleton said. “Synergy poisoned the air, fouled the water and put hog waste full of toxins on the ground. They could not escape that in their homes.”

He said Synergy and Kenoma ignored the will of the people in Richland Township, where local residents tried unsuccessfully to regulate the hog concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) by putting a new zoning rule before voters in the township. The township vote in April 2007 was 81 percent in favor of the new rule, but a judge threw out the vote because of a legal challenge by the hog companies.

Asked Middleton: “What was Synergy thinking when the community rose up and said, ‘We don’t want it here?’ ”

Middleton said the companies continued to break the rules after the plaintiffs filed the nuisance lawsuit against them in 2008. They continued to break the rules after a representative of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources told them they were breaking the rules, he said.

“Synergy made a lot of choices. The people had no choices,” he said. “You can stop this kind of corporate behavior in Missouri.”

Mark Feldman, attorney for Synergy, told the jury he was hoping the bus tour was helpful in showing the agricultural character of Barton County and that “raising pigs is not something that is foreign to the county.” He said the tour should have shown the plaintiffs live miles away from the hog barns operated by Kenoma and that the “factory farm complex” alleged by Middleton is spread over 7.5 square miles.

Feldman said the lawsuit is about “odors and flies” and that it’s not about water quality or a Department of Natural Resources permit. He said no community is a party to the case.

“The attorneys for the plaintiffs want you to be the Missouri Legislature. They want you to find that the laws here are deficient and that Missouri’s laws are not good enough,” Feldman said. “That is not what this case is about.”

George Nichols, the attorney representing Stefan, said none of the plaintiffs is downwind of the prevailing winds. He pointed to conflicting testimony involving the Barton County witnesses who were called to testify about the odors they smelled and the flies they observed.

He said the plaintiffs have a financial interest in the outcome of the trial.

“They want a million bucks each,” he said. “That number came out of thin air.”

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