Senate endorses bill curbing nuisance lawsuits

First Missouri lawmakers limited the money people can win in nuisance lawsuits against big hog farms. Now a proposal advancing in the Senate would bar those lawsuits altogether if a farm or business is operating with an environmental permit from the government.

Legislation given initial approval Thursday by a Senate voice vote would provide what the sponsoring lawmaker described as a “warranty” against nuisance suits complaining about air, water or soil pollution from entities that are complying with government rules.

“I believe if you spent the money — the engineering study and the permit itself, which aren’t cheap — that should be like a warranty to you,” said Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, a farmer from northeast Missouri. “You’ve done your due diligence to meet the requirements that are put upon you. You should have some protection.”

The bill, which still needs a roll call vote to go to the House, comes two years after Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law a measure that limited the money people could win in nuisance lawsuits against farms. Nuisance lawsuits have frequently targeted large, corporate hog farms in Missouri.

Last fall, hog-producer Premium Standard Farms — a major employer in northern Missouri — reached a confidential settlement with 287 plaintiffs that resolved nuisance complaints about odors wafting from its farms where thousands of hogs are kept in confinements.

This year’s legislation would apply not only to nuisance lawsuits targeting farms but to any entity that is operating within the bounds of its government-authorized permission to discharge water, solid waste or air emissions. The legal shield could be broken only if a government permit creates a condition “not reasonably foreseeable” or if the permit holder “purposefully fails” to disclose relevant facts in the permitting process.

Some senators expressed concerns about pre-empting lawsuits against large livestock farms. Sen. Rob Schaaf outlined a scenario in which a heavy rain — an arguably foreseeable event — causes a hog waste lagoon to overflow into a creek and pollute a neighbor’s property downstream.

“They got the permit, but it’s a nuisance for me, and I have no legal recourse under your bill,” Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, told Munzlinger during a Senate debate.

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