Ohio hog farmers are victorious despite $500 award

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SALEM, Ohio – Owners of a Darke County hog farm and their lawyer feel they’re victorious in what’s been called a precedent-setting livestock battle, despite not collecting more than $144,000 awarded by a civil court judge,

In early July, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected an appeal filed on behalf of defendants Tony and Anita Knapke – a move that could have allowed the couple to recoup some of the original settlement.

The case stems from Tony Knapke’s plans to expand his hog operation and add a manure lagoon.

The expansion allowed Knapke to feed hogs under contract for northwest Ohio-based Cooper Farms.

A long road. When three neighbors got wind of the plan more than five years ago, they filed a $10 million class action suit.

The neighbors alleged the expansion would decrease property values and create a nuisance, and requested an injunction on the building.

The Knapkes countersued for damages.

In March 2002, a visiting judge in Darke County Common Pleas Court awarded $144,450 to the Knapkes for lost income and court-related costs.

Under Ohio law, plaintiffs who seek an injunction against a defendant are liable for damages if the injunction is not granted.

Appealed. One neighbor settled out of court before the first ruling. The two remaining neighbors, Everett Hart and Steven Longfellow, appealed the decision.

In February 2003, the Ohio Second District Court of Appeals ruled the judge was wrong to award the Knapkes the cash settlement.

The ruling said the Knapkes were not entitled to collect attorney fees because they incurred none; the fees were paid by Cooper Farms and the Ohio Livestock Coalition.

The ruling also said the trial court erred because the plaintiffs posted $500 bond and “the section of the Revised Code authorizing such awards limits their total to the amount of the bond posted.”

When the neighbors sought the injunction, they failed to post the bond. When the Knapkes and their attorney, Leisa Boley Hellwarth, pressed them to do so, they filed the minimum amount despite Boley Hellwarth’s requests for the court to increase the dollar figure, she said.

The bond technicality led Boley Hellwarth to appeal the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Victory. According to the Knapkes’ attorney, the plaintiffs got off on a technicality.

“[The Supreme Court] didn’t see this as a pressing constitutional issue, which it’s not. They can’t hear everything,” Boley Hellwarth said.

“But this is still a victory for my clients and for agriculture,” she said.

“Tony is still on the farm, and that’s what I’m ultimately interested in.”

A full barn. “This is about whether the plaintiffs could prove their claims, and they didn’t even come close,” Boley Hellwarth said.

“It’s still about the right to build, and [the Knapkes] did,” she said.

The double-wide hog barn was erected in September 2001, and deep pits were installed instead of a manure lagoon.

“I initially wanted a lagoon, and the court ruled there was nothing illegal or no health risk” associated with the method, Knapke said.

“With the deep pits, I’ll keep these three guys more happy this way,” Knapke said of the change, also noting the facility doesn’t smell as much as was anticipated, and most neighbors don’t even notice the new addition.

“I haven’t heard the first word since the thing was built,” he said.

Both sides won? Lester Ferguson, attorney for the plaintiffs, also feels his clients won their suit.

“This is absolutely not an anti-farm issue in the classical sense,” Ferguson said.

The problem for the neighbors wasn’t the expansion, but the proposed lagoon, which the farm-raised Ferguson likened to an open sewer pit.

The lagoon would attract birds, mosquitos and other insects and give them access to contaminants, and would be a source of potential contamination to the aquifer.

With the deep pits, which are contained underneath the barns and pumped periodically, those risks are eliminated, Ferguson said.

“We got absolutely the right result. They voluntarily did what we requested,” he said.

“[The neighbors’] problems weren’t with the Knapkes, not against expansion. It’s simply that a lagoon was the wrong choice for this area,” Ferguson maintained.

Stay strong. One ideal this case has demonstrated to David White, executive director of the Ohio Livestock Coalition, is that the court refused to bend to social pressure.

“Even the appellate court noted the difference between a pit and a lagoon, and how they can or can’t affect a community. This really demonstrates that the court does consider the facts of the case,” White said.

Teaching tool. The bond settlement, which White calls “chicken feed” in this case, is an important teaching tool for other farmers who might be faced with similar lawsuits, White said.

“The judge has the discretion to set [the bond] ceiling. You’ve got to convince the judge that there’s a lot at stake financially, to give real reasons, to get [the judge] to set it higher,” he said.

White also urges farmers to consider all potential damages when asking for an appropriate bond to be set.

“I really think most judges would [set a higher bond] if you show them the facts,” he said.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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