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Local legislators support limiting damages in nuissance lawsuits

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — At least three of Rowan County’s four state legislators support a controversial proposal to limit financial damages in lawsuits involving agriculture or forestry operations.

State Reps. Carl Ford, R-China Grove, and Harry Warren, R-Salisbury, as well as Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Mocksville, have either voted for or sponsored a bill that would cap the amount of money that could be awarded in lawsuits in which plaintiffs allege that agriculture or forestry operations cause a nuisance for neighbors.

A version of the bill was introduced in the state House on March 23. It passed the House on Monday. A version was also introduced in March, but it hasn’t advanced out of the chamber.

Brock co-sponsored a version of the proposal in the Senate. When asked about his support, Brock said people should expect that rural areas will have farms nearby.

“Many times, people will move into an area, and they don’t like the farm, so then they file a lawsuit,” Brock said. “That would be kind of like saying someone moves into downtown Salisbury and saying, ‘I don’t like street noise.’ In rural areas, you’re going to have farming activity.”

He said lawsuits cause farmers to spend more time in the courtroom than on the farm.

The proposal has attracted opposition for more than general nuisance lawsuits against farms. A number of lawsuits are pending against a division of Smithfield Foods because of claims about flies and the smell of animal waste. An initial version of the bill would have affected ongoing lawsuits.

Before a version of the proposal — House Bill 467 — moved through the state House on Monday, an amendment was passed to exclude pending lawsuits. Ford and Warren both voted for the amendment.

“Without the amendment, there was great concern that it would have been unconstitutional by affecting pending cases,” Warren said. “Some of these (lawsuits) reach back as far as five years.”

Warren voted against House Bill 467 when it didn’t have the amendment on existing cases. Ford supported the bill without the amendment.

Brock said he supports the amendment, which is already included in the Senate version.

“We’re talking about changing things midstream, and I don’t like to interfere with the court process,” he said.

However, Brock also said high financial awards associated with agriculture lawsuits can drive up food prices.

Ford said he supports the bill as amended mostly because of its effect on property rights.

“Everybody says, ‘I don’t want you telling me what to do with my land,’ but they all want to tell other people what to do with their land,” Ford said.

He said House Bill 467 resulted in the most constituent feedback of any recent proposal in the legislature, including the controversial House Bill 2.

“Obviously, you’ve got lots of farmers in Cabarrus and Rowan in the part I represent,” Ford said. “Most of them were saying, ‘Protect our farms and protect our property rights.’”

House Bill 467, as amended, now sits in the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations. The similar bill, co-sponsored by Brock, is before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Because it has already passed through one chamber, it’s possible the state Senate will vote on House Bill 467 rather than the Senate version.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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