One of the largest concerns facing small business owners attempting to reopen in the wake of COVID-19 has been uncertainty surrounding their legal liability protections. Hardworking men and women across the country who are doing their best to follow CDC guidelines and keep their customers safe continue to dread losing their entire livelihoods from just one COVID-19 related lawsuit.
Legal liability protections may have a newfound significance for the business community during the pandemic, but the fear of frivolous lawsuits is nothing new for farmers all across the country. Frivolous lawsuits, or even the threat of them, can lead to farmers going out of business and losing their land to suburban developments. As farmland diminishes, so does our food supply.
As agriculture commissioners in our home states of Louisiana and North Carolina, we’ve seen how harmful nuisance lawsuits can be, and we know the steps that need to be taken to prevent them. All states have right-to-farm statutes already on the books to protect against nuisance lawsuits, but that hasn’t stopped lawyers from finding ways around them.
One of the worst cases occurred in Commissioner Troxler’s home state of North Carolina in 2014, when a loophole in the state’s law allowed trial lawyers to secure $550 million in damages through 26 lawsuits against numerous farms in the state. As American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall wrote earlier this month, “These lawsuits were not based on any violations of environmental laws or regulations: they simply claimed that these farms were a nuisance.”
The incident caused the North Carolina Legislature to update the Right to Farm law in 2018, making it more in line with the states like Louisiana, where we passed a Right to Farm Law to include provisions for nuisance lawsuits a few years prior.
Florida is currently looking to modernize its protections for farmers. There are companion bills moving through both chambers of the legislature in the Sunshine State that would make critical changes to the Right to Farm Act that the state first passed in 1979.
The proposed legislation in Florida would require plaintiffs who lose nuisance lawsuits to reimburse farmers for their legal fees. The measures would also limit the types of lawsuits that can be filed against farmers as well as reduce the parties that can file such lawsuits.
Critics of strengthening Right to Farm legislation claim that it’s solely an effort to help big businesses. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that nuisance lawsuits may be filed against large companies, but it’s the independent farms that are harmed the most. In fact, 89 different hog farms were impacted from the 26 lawsuits that were filed in North Carolina in 2014.
Farmers are currently facing an enormous amount of struggles. The trade war with China has created a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the agriculture industry, food prices are skyrocketing, and the total number of bankruptcies for family farms in 2020 was the third highest in a decade. Reducing the threat of nuisance lawsuits will make it easier for farmers to navigate these tough times, which will benefit our country’s overall food supply.
Fighting back against nuisance lawsuits targeting our farmers may not be the flashiest cause in a political landscape dominated by the stories that can get the most clicks in the 24 hour news cycle, but failing to do so will have a major impact on your daily life. We hope you remember protecting our farmers helps protect your food supply.
Steve Troxler is the North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner and Dr. Mike Strain is the , Louisiana Agriculture & Forestry Commissioner.