By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – A bill passed in both the House and Senate and forwarded to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt offers an important protection for farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers in the state, the executive director of the Oklahoma Pork Council said.
House Bill 2373, if signed into law, would limit noneconomic damages that might be awarded in “nuisance” lawsuits brought against producers. Roy Lee Lindsey said the bill was inspired by legislation in North Carolina, where in recent years he said nuisance claims have threatened to put some longtime producers out of business.
In a few instances, he said, producers were stung by judgments for punitive damages of multiple millions of dollars in cases that involved allegations of things like bad odors or too much dust kicked up on roadways by trucks hauling animals. He noted that in some of the cases, producers had been in business for decades “without complaint, never running afoul of regulations or the law” but were named in lawsuits by plaintiffs who may have only recently moved into areas.
HB 2373 wouldn’t set any limit on actual damages that might be claimed or ordered by a judge or jury in such a lawsuit.
“It doesn’t touch actual damages, because if we’ve got a farm that’s not doing things right, they should be held accountable,” Lindsey said. “People still have a responsibility to be good neighbors … and you would hope that any conflict might actually be resolved before they would ever get to the lawsuit stage.”
The bill would provide for a cap on noneconomic punitive damages that might be ordered in cases. They would not be allowed to exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever amount might be greater, and would have to be ordered separately from amounts ordered for compensatory damages. The same type of cap on judgments has recently been adopted in North Carolina.
Lindsey said he’s been with the Pork Council for 21 years and during that time there has never been a nuisance lawsuit brought against a pork producer in Oklahoma. Actually, he said he wasn’t aware of any nuisance lawsuit brought against any kind of ag producer in the state.
“We see this as a preventive measure to try to protect our producers down the road,” he said. “In Oklahoma we’re just trying to get out in front of this before it might become a problem.”
There are about 265 pork-producing operations in Oklahoma, the Pork Council executive director said. The majority are northwest of Kingfisher toward the Panhandle. Most are operations that might keep in the range of 2,400 animals at a time, though some might be larger, handling between 6,000 and 10,000 animals.
HB 2373 passed through the House on an 88-7 vote and through the Senate 39-7. In debate prior to the votes some lawmakers expressed reluctance to put limits on the options of “fact finder” juries in such cases. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, asserted that juries should be presumed to be unbiased and should be free to use their discretion to set damages in civil lawsuits.