Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed legislation Monday aimed at limiting nuisance lawsuits against large hog farms that produce foul odors, but he indicated a willingness to work with lawmakers on a revised version.
The governor said he vetoed the bill because it limited people's ability to win punitive damages against farms and because some provisions could have been interpreted to also apply to other types of annoying actions, such as noisy neighbors, vehicle exhaust or leaking gas tanks and oil lines.
The bill's lead Republican sponsor said he would work with the Democratic governor's office to address his concerns, clarify the legislation and send a revised version to Nixon before the legislative session ends May 13.
But "we're definitely working against the clock right now," said Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany. "It is very difficult to get a bill through the General Assembly entirely one time, let alone this is the second time."
The legislation comes after hog-producer Premium Standard Farms - a major employer in northern Missouri - 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.
A spokeswoman for Premium Standard Farms did not immediately return messages Monday evening.
Under the bill, lawsuits alleging a temporary nuisance against agricultural entities could seek damages based on the decline in the property's fair market rental value. If neighboring property owners filed multiple lawsuits against the same farming operation for the same nuisance, it would be considered a permanent nuisance and damages would be awarded based on decreases in the property's fair market value.
Nixon said some of bill's wording could have applied the limits on nuisance lawsuits to more than just farms. He also objected to a provision he said would have forbidden punitive damages in nuisance lawsuits related to livestock and crop production and thus "turns back decades of Missouri common law."
"The recovery of punitive damages is an important tool to incent the abatement of noxious activity, and must continue to be available to persons aggrieved by a nuisance arising out of crop or animal production," Nixon said in a veto statement.
Critics said the legislation could have allowed allow large-scale hog farms 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.
Tim Gibbons, a spokesman for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, praised Nixon's veto while calling the legislation "a form of corporate eminent domain."
"Any attempt to limit the right of farmers to protect their property rights is unacceptable," Gibbons said. "We do know that this bill was written to protect mega-hog operations. If they end up not being a good neighbor, then these farmers should be able to protect their property rights."
Gary Holcomb, a farmer from Coffey, said he lives near a large farming operation and supports Nixon's veto.
"I was raised on a farm, so I know what a farm smells like," said Holcomb, 73. "This is an overpowering stench. I don't know any smaller farmer or middle farmer that has a worry about a lawsuit. All this is from my view is that the hog farms are trying to get an inroad to weaken these lawsuits."
Farm lawsuits bill is HB209.