Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a retired Duplin County hog farmer, pleaded with fellow House members to remember the people who put food on the table.
A handful of his Republican colleagues (and several Democrats) said being faithful to the principles of common-law jurisprudence, separation of powers, and property rights outweigh the interests of any single industry, no matter how important.
The House passed House Bill 467 — a measure limiting court damages in some nuisance lawsuits to the actual value of the property involved — Monday evening by a 68-47 margin. But not before an amendment passed from Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, blocking the law from applying to current federal lawsuits involving hundreds of plaintiffs and one major defendant — Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.
Blust also noted the common-law standard of requiring parties that damage the lives or property of others to compensate victims fully. “Nothing is more fundamental to liberty than the use of your own home unimpeded by what bad things your neighbors do,” Blust said.
The amendment passed by a 59-56 vote after more than an hour of debate. The lower damage limits would apply to future cases, but not the massive litigation now before U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt.
Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, another primary sponsor of the original legislation, said damage limits should apply to the Smithfield lawsuits because Britt had noted the North Carolina statutes were not clear about the monetary damages that apply to “temporary nuisances” like seasonal treatment of hog lagoon waste, implying he wouldn’t rule on the cases until he got some guidance from the legislature.
But House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said Britt wasn’t asking for help. He was citing the law.
Blust, and Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, warned their colleagues against intervening in existing lawsuits. Blust said the bill would encourage more constituents to come forward and ask lawmakers to change damage amounts if they were likely to lose a lawsuit.
Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, a former member of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, argued that the bill would violate separation of powers, placing the legislative branch in the center of an ongoing judicial dispute.
“We’re not being asked to rule on the case,” Blust said, adding, “We don’t need to be rushing in at the last minute and bailing out a defendant.”
The bill passed an initial vote on Thursday by a 64-48 margin with no discussion or debate, a little more than 60 seconds after the bill was introduced. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-Cumberland, objected to final passage of the bill, giving legislators a few days to review it and get input.
H.B. 467 goes to the Senate.