Activists say a bill requiring people who file frivolous lawsuits against Indiana livestock farms to pay the farms' legal fees would make people reluctant to take action, even when they have legitimate complaints about smells or waste. The measure, which supporters call a right-to-farm bill, passed the House on a 57-39 vote and goes before the Senate judiciary committee for a hearing. It has strong support from the Indiana Farm Bureau and Indiana Pork Producers, but environmental groups are opposed.

Rep. Bill Friend, R-Macy, said he sponsored the bill because farms need protection from unfounded, groundless lawsuits filed just to interfere with their business. While livestock farms have been the subject of most nuisance suits, the bill would apply to all farms in the state.

Friend rejected the idea that it would deter residents with legitimate complaints from suing a livestock or grain farm.

"All this bill says is that actions have consequences and bring us your serious issues so the legal system can function," Friend said. "The only way this even has an effect is if the court says this was groundless or frivolous and you wasted the court's time."

Kim Ferraro, water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said court records indicate only 10 nuisance lawsuits have been filed in the past decade against agricultural operations in Indiana, including large factory-style livestock farms. Not one has been dismissed as frivolous, she said.


"Where are these frivolous lawsuits they're so concerned about?" Ferraro asked.

The council has pushed for tighter regulation of the state's roughly 2,000 industrial-style livestock farms where thousands of animals are raised together in close quarters and produce large amounts of waste.

If the bill becomes law, Ferraro said rural residents who have legitimate reasons for suing such farms over manure runoff or other problems may decide not to because they're afraid a judge would declare their lawsuits frivolous and saddle them with thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

"The idea is to intimidate, to make somebody be worried that they're going to be on the hook for paying for a defendant's attorney fees and costs," Ferraro said. "It's a chilling effect."

One provision of the measure requires judges who find lawsuits against farms and agricultural operations "frivolous, initiated maliciously, or groundless" to order the plaintiffs to pay the defendants' litigation costs, "including reasonable attorney's fees."

State law now allows judges to impose such fees in cases of frivolous lawsuits but doesn't require it.

Ferraro also questioned the wisdom of helping one industry when many others also face nuisance lawsuits.

"Why just single out these farms? Why are we are providing another layer of protection against one particular industry?" she said.

Sen. Jean Leising, an Oldenburg Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said she would be willing to consider measures giving the same protection to other Indiana businesses. But she said for now the focus is on the state's farms.

More urban residents are moving to rural areas, where they encounter the smells that come with farm life, such as the stench livestock can produce, she said. Leising said the bill would provide peace of mind for farmers who are following state and federal rules but fear, for example, that a new subdivision being built near their farm might spawn lawsuits.

"If you do something wrong this isn't going to protect you," she said. "But if you're doing things by the letter of the law, you will not have to worry about any lawsuits to defend yourself from – to me, that's the bottom line."

Justin Schneider, a staff attorney for Indiana Farm Bureau, said activists who oppose factory-style livestock farms have filed numerous nuisance lawsuits in states such as Missouri. He believes Indiana is their next target.

"It's a concerted effort by a handful of attorneys who've filed a lot of nuisance lawsuits in other states to come to Indiana and do the same thing here," Schneider said. "They haven't really hid that fact, but that's their plan." PD

—AP newswire report