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Artis v. Murphy-Brown, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division

March 8, 2019

BEN ARTIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MURPHY-BROWN, LLC, d/b/a SMITHFIELD HOG PRODUCTION DIVISION, Defendant.

          ORDER

          W. EARL BRITT, SENIOR U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on the parties' post-trial motions following the entry of final judgment on the jury verdict awarding the six trial plaintiffs in this case compensatory and punitive damages on their nuisance claims. (DE ## 275, 277, 281, 285.)

         I. DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO ALTER OR AMEND

         Pursuant to Rules 59(e) and 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, defendant requests that the court vacate the judgment. “A Rule 59(e) motion may only be granted in three situations: ‘(1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice.' It is an extraordinary remedy that should be applied sparingly.” Mayfield v. Nat'l Ass'n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 674 F.3d 369, 378 (4th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted). Because defendant filed its motion within 28 days of entry of the judgment, the court considers it only under this standard, rather than under the Rule 60(b) standard. See Robinson v. Wix Filtration Corp., 599 F.3d 403, 412 (4th Cir. 2010) (“We have squarely held, however, that a motion filed under both Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) should be analyzed only under Rule 59(e) if it was filed no later than [28] days after entry of the adverse judgment and seeks to correct that judgment.” (citations omitted)).

         Defendant argues that the judgment should be vacated for the failure to join Greenwood Livestock LLC (“Greenwood Livestock”) and the Pagle Corporation (“Pagle”), owners of the subject farms, as necessary and indispensable parties. Defendant filed a similar motion in the related case of McKiver v. Murphy-Brown, LLC, No. 7:14-CV-180-BR, and for the reasons stated in the court's 17 December 2018 order in that case, (DE # 346, at 5-7), the motion will be denied.

         II. DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

         Based on Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, defendant renews its earlier motions for judgment as a matter of law. In considering a Rule 50(b) motion, “the question is whether a jury, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to [the non-movant], could have properly reached the conclusion reached by th[e] jury. If reasonable minds could differ about the result in this case, [the court] must affirm the jury's verdict.” Bryant v. Aiken Reg'l Med. Ctrs. Inc., 333 F.3d 536, 543 (4th Cir. 2003) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Defendant argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because (1) plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence to support punitive damages; (2) plaintiffs presented no evidence to support compensatory damages as limited by an amendment to North Carolina's Right to Farm Act (“RFA”); (3) plaintiffs' claims are barred by an amendment to the RFA; and (4) Greenwood Livestock and Pagle are indispensable parties.

         As for the first ground, defendant contends it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence to support punitive damages. Considering the evidence developed at trial in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, a reasonable jury could have found defendant liable for punitive damages. As for the second and third ground, because plaintiffs brought this action prior to the effective dates of the subject amendments to the RFA, see McKiver (DE # 346) at 2-5; McGowan v. Murphy-Brown, LLC, No. 7:14-CV-182-BR (DE # 472) at 2-5, those amendments do not limit the compensatory damages plaintiffs may recover or bar their claims. As for the fourth ground, defendant relies on its motion to alter or amend the judgment. As addressed above, for the reasons stated in McKiver (DE # 346), the court concludes Greenwood Livestock and Pagle are not indispensable parties.

         The court will deny defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law.

         III. DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL

         Defendant moves for a new trial under Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. “In considering a motion for a new trial, a trial judge may weigh the evidence and consider the credibility of witnesses, and if he finds the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, is based on false evidence or will result in a miscarriage of justice, he must set aside the verdict, even if supported by substantial evidence, and grant a new trial.” King v. McMillan, 594 F.3d 301, 314 (4th Cir. 2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Defendant asks the court to revisit a number of its prior rulings, covering pretrial cross-motions for summary judgment through jury instructions. The court declines to disturb these rulings. The only issues defendant raises that merit further discussion are its allegations of misrepresentations by plaintiffs' counsel regarding the measure of damages and its request for remittitur.

         A. Alleged Misrepresentations by Plaintiffs' Counsel

         Defendant moves for a new trial based on certain statements made by plaintiffs' counsel during his opening statement and closing argument.

In the interests of justice and efficiency, a new trial should not be lightly granted. To begin with, a new trial should be granted only if prejudicial statements are so egregious that they prevent the complaining party from receiving a fair trial. See DeBenedetto v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 754 F.2d 512, 519 (4th Cir. 1985). If a party fails to object to an error at trial, a new trial will not be granted unless “exceptional circumstances exist such as when the error is so obvious or so serious that the public reputation and integrity of the judicial proceeding is impaired.” Hafner v. Brown, 983 F.2d 570, 578 (4th Cir. 1992) (internal quotation marks ...

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