Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Missouri Agricultural Nuisance Case: Court Affirms $11 Million Jury Award

The Missouri Court of Appeals today affirmed a jury award of over $11 million dollars against a hog operator in John Owens v. ContiGroup Companies, Inc.  In the case, fifteen plaintiffs sued ContiGroup and Premium Standard Farms alleging that these operations created a "nuisance" in Gentry County, Missouri.  At the trial court, a jury awarded thirteen of the plaintiffs $825,000 each, one plaintiff $250,000 and one plaintiff $75,000.

The Court of Appeals found that there was substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict that there was a nuisance:
There was substantial testimony that both ill odors from gasses and chemicals released from PSF's hog operation and other emissions (such as hog effluent), which cause ill odors, traveled from PSF's land onto the Respondents' properties. Each Respondent's property was in close proximity to PSF's extensive hog operations and each testified that he or she experienced great distress as a result of odor coming onto his or her property.
On appeal, the hog operator argued that the jury's verdict was excessive, since it compensated the plaintiffs for more than the diminution (or reduction) in value of their homes.  The Court of Appeals rejected this argument:
An action for temporary nuisance includes, as was asserted in this case, non-economic damages, including inconvenience, discomfort and loss of quality of life. See e.g., Brown v. Cedar Creek Rod & Gun Club, 298 S.W.3d 14, 21 (Mo. App. W.D. 2009); Peters, 292 S.W.3d at 385 (Mo. App. W.D. 2009). There is no authority for the proposition that a damage award is excessive if damages for the loss of the use and enjoyment of property exceed the actual market value of that property. Further, our legislature has recognized that there is an inherent additional value in a homestead that exceeds the fair market value of the property. 
The court affirmed the award because it found that the hog operator had failed to argue before the jury that the damages sought were excessive, instead choosing to focus on whether the farm operations created any liability at all.

No doubt that this case will raise a concern for many Indiana livestock producers--should I be worried about my farm being sued for nuisance?  There is no easy answer, of course, as nuisance suits are factually complex and turn on a number of factors that vary from case to case.  Fortunately, Indiana has a very strong Right to Farm Act, which was passed to protect farmers from nuisance suits like the Owens case.  Look for more discussion of the Right to Farm Act and agricultural nuisance in future posts.    

The complete opinion can be found here.

Disclaimer:  I am not licensed to practice in Missouri and was not involved in litigating this case.  This post is meant to be informative only and not offered as legal advice. 

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