One on One: A Salisbury woman takes down the hog barons

Published 9:01 am Saturday, July 16, 2022

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By D.G. Martin

How did a Salisbury woman beat the powerful forces of Smithfield Foods, Inc. and its hog farming allies?

As described in this column last week, Mona Lisa Wallace and her law firm won $32 million in verdicts against the Smithfield group for its nuisance damage to the homes and lives on properties near hog farms.

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In a letter promoting his new book, “Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial,” for use in college and law school classes, the book’s author, Corban Addison, explains how he learned about Wallace and her efforts.

“Three years ago, a friend called me and told me a story that sounded almost too good to be true. It was about a lawyer he knew, a woman named Mona Lisa Wallace from his hometown in North Carolina.”

Addison’s Salisbury-connected friend is best-selling author John Hart, whose most recent novel is “The Unwilling.” Addison continues, “In 2013, Mona took up the banner of a rural community ‘down east,’ as the locals call it, a community comprised of mostly Black people of modest means. Over the course of a generation, that community had seen its ancestral land – as well as its air and water – degraded by pollution from factory farms tied to the world’s largest hog producer, Smithfield Foods. They had agitated for change, but the change never came. Not until Mona took Smithfield to court.

“Her mass action required seven years to litigate. It sparked rallies in the streets, a firestorm on social media, death threats to the lawyers, witness intimidation, and an attempt by the industry’s bedfellows in the state legislature to modify the centuries-old definition of nuisance retroactively to prevent the lawsuits from ever reaching a jury. Notwithstanding these headwinds, Mona and her co-counsel persisted, bringing five cases to trial and winning five plaintiffs’ verdicts.”

Of course, Wallace could not have done the whole thing by herself. Lawyers and paralegals interviewed people who had been impacted by the hog farming, mostly people whose homes were nearby, mostly in Duplin, Bladen, Pender and Sampson Counties. They did the research and drafted motions and briefs. And Wallace engaged a talented and energetic co-counsel, Mike Kaeske, a Texas lawyer with working class roots. Kaeske handled the trial witness presentations, cross examinations and, most important, opening and closing arguments, for which he spent hundreds of hours in preparation and practice.

All the work paid off in trials in a Federal District Court, but the defendant appealed the verdict to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Although one judge dissented, the panel of three judges, including conservative J. Harvie Wilkinson, voted to assure Smithfield’s loss.

Addison noted that Wilkinson, in a concurring opinion, wrote “with Mosaic thunder,” saying that the Smithfield group’s “interference with their quiet enjoyment of their properties was unreasonable. It was willful, and it was wanton.”

For Smithfield, Addison writes, the ruling was a devastating blow. Its public relations team launched a preemptive strike in an attempt to stanch the bleeding. Its press release “then regurgitates the same warmed-over pablum that the hog barons have served up for more than a generation – that no one understands the industry, that all the negative media and lawsuits and jury verdicts are biased and unfair, that Smithfield cares about farmers, and that it is committed to feeding the world.”

But writes Addison, “The press release, however, is not just propagandistic. It contains a nugget of news: ‘We have resolved these cases through a settlement that will take into account the divided decision of the court. Information about the terms of the settlement will not be disclosed.’”

Unfortunately, the book ends on this note, leaving the reader to guess how much more Smithfield had to pay to each plaintiff and whether the settlement will significantly change Smithfield’s methods.

Still, the book has gained national attention, including a detailed review in the July 10 edition of The New York Times Book Review.

Stay tuned. The hog wars are not over.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.