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Mo. lawmakers pass limits on farm lawsuits

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers sent the governor a measure Thursday that would limit the money people could win in nuisance lawsuits against agricultural producers and restrict their ability to sue multiple times for issues such as foul odors from large hog farms.

The legislation comes after hog-producer Premium Standard Farms warned last year that it might have to leave the state if it continued to be targeted by nuisance lawsuits. Such lawsuits have resulted in multimillion dollar awards against the company, including an $11 million award to a group of 15 northwest Missouri residents.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, said the goal is to protect agricultural producers from being forced out of business by multiple lawsuits.

“We’re not taking away anyone’s right to sue,” he said. “What it does is limit their ability to come back time and time again to the same lawsuit.”

The House passed the bill 110-45, with 11 Democrats joining majority Republicans in support of the bill. The Senate passed the bill previously.

The measure would only allow people who own at least part of the affected land to file suit against the farming operations. If a farming operation causes a temporary nuisance to another property owner, that person could seek damages based on the decline in the property’s fair market rental value.

If the property owner filed multiple lawsuits against the same farming operation for the same nuisance, it would be considered a permanent nuisance. Damages for permanent nuisances would be awarded based on decreases in the property’s fair market value.

Critics say that part of the legislation could allow large-scale hog farms that produce foul odors to move into an area and lower surrounding property values. They said the farming operations, sometimes called concentrated animal feeding operations, could then buy out the surrounding property at the lower price.

“Common sense would dictate that when I buy a piece of property that isn’t next to a smelly CAFO, as soon as that smelly CAFO moves in, the value of my property will go down,” said Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis. “It seems to me that we are offering double protection to the CAFOs.”

Guernsey said the large farming operations would not try to buy out smaller property owners because fair market values of farmland are continually rising, not falling, even in areas near large farm operations.

“The fact of the matter is that rural property values are not declining,” he said.

Tim Gibbons, a spokesman for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said individual landowners who have property next to the large farming operations aren’t looking to win large awards in state courts through lawsuits. Instead, he said, the possibility of a large verdict might deter companies from creating a nuisance in the first place.

“The liability creates incentive to be good neighbors,” he said after the vote. “If you limit that liability so much, then instead of these lawsuits being an incentive for these operations to be good neighbors...then it actually becomes a disincentive.”

Gibbons also said the legislation was crafted to satisfy its sponsors’ parochial interests rather than improve the state’s economy as a whole.

Premium Standard Farms employs about 1,100 people in the economically struggling communities of northern Missouri. A processing plant in Milan which employs about 1,400 people also gets a majority of its business from Premium Standard.

On its website, Premium Standard lists a mailing address in Princeton, Mo., which is located within Guernsey’s district. The address is also within the district of Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, who sponsored similar legislation in the Senate.

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