Years-Long Struggle Against Polluting Factory Farms Wins 2020 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Years-Long Struggle Against Polluting Factory Farms Wins 2020 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Public Justice’s 2020 Trial Lawyer of the Year award was awarded to the legal team – also finalists for the 2019 award – who took on factory farms ruining the quality of life of low-income communities of color. The award was presented on the evening of Thursday, August 6 at Public Justice’s Annual Virtual Gala, hosted online for the first time.

The other finalists for the award were Does v. Michigan Department of Corrections and Pozner v. Fetzer et al. Read about the accomplishments of those finalist teams here. Information about previous TLOY winners is available here.

Mona Lisa Wallace, Lisa Blue Baron and Mike Kaeske and their litigation and trial teams have continued to lead ongoing litigation against the world’s largest factory farm pork producer, Murphy-Brown LLC d/b/a Smithfield Hog Production — the hog growing component of Smithfield Foods. Their cases involve 500 Plaintiffs, 26 separate multi-plaintiff lawsuits, federal court jurisdiction and multiple defense firms representing Smithfield and its cohorts. Beginning in 2013, over years the team has face one challenge after another. Continuing through 2019 and now into 2020, the team has continued pushing ahead and achieving results.

In response to the lawsuits, Smithfield ran an aggressive social media campaign and hired multiple lobbyists. They tried, and partially succeeded, in passing laws to hinder the cases. In the face of these hurdles, the legal team has now conducted five separate federal trials, each about four weeks long, in a series beginning in 2018 and running into 2019. They have won every time before the jury.

Most recently, on March 8, 2019, the team won its fifth straight trial against Smithfield. With this fifth verdict, the team has obtained a combined monetary verdict total in excess of $500 million. While the punitive damage cap statute in North Carolina reduced the judgment amounts, these results are still record-breaking.

The team has consistently sought to use the litigation not only to obtain monetary damages for their clients but also to advance the science regarding industrialized animal feeding operations. The trial court granted a motion for site inspections that allowed leading scientists including Shane Rogers of Clarkson University and colleagues from Johns Hopkins and North Carolina State to enter the farms and take measurements and samples. It was one of the most detailed scientific views into conditions at these facilities that has ever occurred, because the industry has traditionally blocked researchers from access.  Award-winning epidemiologist Dr. Steve Wing from UNC-Chapel Hill gave compelling testimony in a trial preservation deposition before his untimely death from cancer. This testimony was played during each trial. The litigation advanced the science of using microbial source tracking tools to track biological contaminants by their DNA signatures.

As the verdicts came in, Smithfield began appealing the results to the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. As the cases began working their way up on appeal, the plaintiffs’ team worked with a group of public interest lawyers and nonprofits who filed a series of well-sourced, extensive amicus briefs, opposing the efforts by Smithfield and its industry allies to get the verdicts reversed.

The appeal of the first trial was argued to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia on January 31, 2020 before a three-judge panel. Issuance of a written decision may come at any time.  Further trials have been placed on hold pending the outcome of that first appeal.

As important as the monetary verdicts, this litigation has forced the food animal production industry to change. This change will make daily living conditions more tolerable for these longstanding communities, which are disproportionately communities of color. After first several large punitive damages verdicts came out, Smithfield went public to announce an extensive series of upgrades in how it does business. Driven to action by the verdicts, the spotlight that they cast, and the scientific data that was emerging, the company announced substantial capital expenditures to make much-needed changes. The company is replacing mortality dumpsters which spread fumes and germs and attract vermin, with freezer-style fixtures. It is moving to the use of refrigerating mortality trucks. It has begun replacing open-air spray guns for waste handling by subsurface injection and low-pressure irrigation. Access roads are being relocated away from homes.  The estimated total cost of these long-needed improvements runs to the tens of millions.

By forcing Smithfield to change its systems in the U.S., the hog litigation team of plaintiffs’ lawyers is also causing change on a global level. It is impacting Smithfield’s China-based owner, WH Group, as it commences its plans to replicate American food animal production systems elsewhere. The better, less-polluting technologies the industry is being forced to adopt here will have ripple effects across the globe, not least of all to mitigate global warming.

The Smithfield hog litigation has presented unique challenges. The matter could not be brought as a class action. Personal attention to literally hundreds of clients and witnesses was and is still required.  The commitment by the law firms has been enormous. The positive impact on rural communities of color has been significant. The litigation is a testament to the manner in which plaintiffs’ lawyers can benefit society and social justice.

Team: Mona Lisa Wallace, John Hughes, Daniel Wallace, Mark Doby, Whitney Wallace, Wallace and Graham, P.A., Salisbury, N.C.; Lynn Bradshaw, Michael Kaeske, Kaeske Law Firm, Austin, Texas; Lisa Blue, Baron & Blue, Dallas, Texas.

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