One issue that we receive frequent questions on at the National Ag Law Center involves “right-to-farm” statutes. What are they? What do they do? How do they affect my case?
To start out, the very name of the statutes is a misnomer! They are not intended to guarantee your right to farm in any circumstance. Instead they provide protection in one narrow area, nuisance. A nuisance is a substantial and ongoing interference with another’s use and enjoyment of their property.
The purpose behind a right-to-farm statute is to provide an affirmative legal defense to farmers in cases where their neighbors bring nuisance lawsuits because of noise, odor, light, dust, etc. … so long as certain criteria are met. It is important to note that these statutes are only useful with nuisance litigation and will not work in other tort or criminal cases.
In earlier nuisance suits before the right-to-farm statutes, defendant farmers saw mixed success defending these nuisance claims even with the argument that the farmer was there first and that the neighbor “came to the nuisance.”
As a result, state legislatures responded and provided statutory protection to farmers to create a defense to nuisance suits of this kind. All 50 states have enacted right-to-farm statutes; however the scope and degree of protection vary significantly across the country. The original intent was to prevent the encroachment of urban and suburban development into agricultural areas from forcing farmers out of business as their new neighbors moved in (i.e. “coming to the nuisance”). Many states, however, have modified this approach and even expanded upon it in some circumstances. To view your state’s right-to-farm statute, go to http://bit.ly/RightToFarm.
A recent series of cases out of North Carolina involving nuisance litigation against swine farms has generated a great deal of renewed interest in right-to-farm statutes. The cases in North Carolina all involve nuisance litigation against Murphy-Brown, a division of Smithfield Foods. In this specific instance, 29 lawsuits, involving around 500 plaintiffs, were filed against Murphy-Brown alleging that the swine farms they contracted with failed to minimize odors by using open lagoons to store manure until it could be applied to fields.
Verdicts in the first cases have already exceeded $100 million. The judge in this series of cases ruled early on that the North Carolina right-to-farm statute did not apply because some of the residents in the vicinity of the farms had lived there prior to the establishment of the farms. Under the right-to-farm statute then in effect, the farmer needed to be there first before the right to farm protection began. To learn more about this series of cases go to http://bit.ly/2DhEd1b.
It is important that farmers know what their right-to farm-statute does and does not do just in case they are ever unfortunate enough to need it. Variations in the statutes do exist and your statute may not always provide the level of protection that the legislature intended, as seen in the North Carolina cases. For this reason we are starting to see several states start to modify their right-to-farm statutes and we expect to see a lot of activity continue in this area.