A coalition of family farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, animal welfare activists and other organizations has filed lawsuits in federal and state courts against Smithfield Foods.
The coalition, led by the Water Keeper’s Alliance and its president, Robert Kennedy, Jr., includes some 30 local, regional, state and national organizations. Also in the alliance are a dozen of the nation’s leading law firms, which are each donating time and $50,000 to the effort.
The Alliance charges that Smithfield Foods has for years knowingly and systematically violated environmental laws. Consequently, the Alliance will file lawsuits under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the federal Clean Water Act, the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The filings also included one Notice of Intent to Sue in Missouri and four in North Carolina.
Kennedy is vowing continued action against Smithfield and other major hog producers in every state. Criteria for who will fall under the Alliance’s sword is sketchy, other than the group will focus on the biggest operations first.
“We are taking the unprecedented step of launching national litigation against the factory hog industry,” says Kennedy. “They are outlaws and bullies who have destroyed thousands of miles of public waterways and aquifers, shattered the lives of tens of thousands of rural Americans and treated millions of animals with unspeakable and unnecessary cruelty.”
Among the suits is one filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly called RICO. One of the Alliance’s themes under the RICO complaint is that Smithfield's operation is funded by its illegal pollution-based profits. “In violating environmental laws, which is an intended part of its business strategy, it (Smithfield) is unlawfully shifting the cost of handling its pollution to the American public,” says Kennedy.
“Many Americans are not aware of the massive destruction caused by industry hog factories because they are located in rural areas and therefore, have largely escaped the media spotlight,” says Scott Dye, the Missouri-based agriculture coordinator for the Sierra Club. “While some may see this as a distant isolated issue, the rural communities being contaminated are the fabric of America and the families being destroyed are our very own. We will not allow our families to be treated that way, and that’s why we will take this fight to every state in the country that’s being harmed by factory farms.”
While four letters of “Intent to Sue” are already sent, nine more are in the works and Kennedy says he expects more than 20 to be drafted. “We will file against every single pork factory in America,” he says. He has identified such units in 36 states.
Mike Papantonio, a partner in the Pensacola, Fla., law firm Levin, Middlebrooks, Thomas, Mitchell, Echsner, Proctor & Papantonio, says, “Bobby Kennedy has pulled the sword out of the stone and this grassroots coalition of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and attorneys is prepared to follow his lead.”
An Overview of The Legal Action
The Alliance lawsuits fall into three categories – RICO, federal environmental law and state common and statutory law.
- State Common Law - In addition to a lawsuit already on file in North Carolina, the coalition filed a lawsuit on Feb. 23 on behalf of individuals reportedly affected by Smithfield's pollution of the Cape Fear, Neuse, and New River basins. The plaintiffs include commercial fishermen, marina owners, bridge workers and riparian landowners. The suit brings causes of action under North Carolina law for private and public nuisance, trespass, strict liability, negligence, Unfair Trade Practices and asserts a claim pursuant to the Public Trust Doctrine. The Public Trust Doctrine is grounded in the notion that North Carolina’s rivers are public resources held in trust for the benefit of all North Carolinians. The Defendants include Smithfield, its subsidiary companies Carroll’s Foods and Brown’s of Carolina, Wendell Murphy, Sr., Wendell Murphy, Jr., and Joseph Luter, III, in their individual capacities. The complaint seeks individual damages and public damages. The lawsuit also seeks an injunction against further pollution, punitive damages and remediation of the river systems, which could be in the billions of dollars.
- Federal Environmental Lawsuits—The Alliance filed two lawsuits today in North Carolina against Smithfield facilities for violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). These suits are brought under federal law pursuant to the citizen suit provisions of the Acts, which empower citizens (often called private attorneys general) to bring suits to enforce the Act’s provisions when there has been a failure of the federal and state government to act. The Alliance also filed four additional notices of “Intent to Sue” letter against Smithfield facilities for violations of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and RCRA. A notice of “Intent to Sue” letter was also filed against a Missouri Smithfield facility for violations of CWA, RCRA, CERCLA and the Clean Air Act.
- RICO – Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. A class-action RICO lawsuit was filed today in federal court in Tampa, Fla. One of the themes of the RICO complaint is that Smithfield's operation is funded by its illegal pollution-based profits.
The Alliance contends that Smithfield has pervasively and habitually violated environmental laws and uses the proceeds from to further its business activities. “By violating environmental laws, Smithfield is shifting the cost of handling its pollution to the American Public and is giving itself an unfair advantage in the marketplace,” the Alliance suit argues. “By funding its growth with pollution-based proceeds and profits, Smithfield also is adversely directly affecting the health, quality of life, economic and property interests of the plaintiffs represented in this national class action.
Another major theme of the Alliance’s national class action is that Smithfield has unlawfully failed to disclose its noncompliance with environmental laws that directly affect such material interests of the class action plaintiffs.