Georgia Legislature Looks to Protect Agriculture: Passes Bill That Would Restrict Farm-Killing Nuisance Suits

March 18, 2019Article

Following in the footsteps of North Carolina, the Georgia Legislature is looking to provide greater protection to Georgia farmers and agriculture by amending the Georgia Right-to-Farm statute. In light of recent multi-million-dollar verdicts in nuisance lawsuits involving hog farms in North Carolina and looking to prevent such results in a Georgia, where agriculture is still the largest single component in the state economy, the Georgia House of Representative recently passed House Bill 545 (HB 545), which would limit nuisance lawsuits brought against agricultural operations.

Sponsored by Republican State Representative Tom McCall of Elberton, Chairman of the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, along with five other representatives from agriculture-rich districts, HB 545 would amend Georgia’s Right-to-Farm law, Section 41-1-7 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, to effectuate similar limitations on nuisance suits as those passed by North Carolina last year. HB 545 would alter the existing law by:

  1. clearly stating that it is the intent of the legislature to protect agricultural operations, regardless of whether the agricultural land uses or nonagricultural land uses “came first” and to encourage new agricultural activity and investment;
  2. requiring that any plaintiff in a nuisance suit must own the property impacted by the nuisance and that property must be located within 5 miles of the source of the alleged nuisance; and,
  3. requiring that any nuisance lawsuits against an agricultural operation must be filed within one year from the farm operation’s start, including any changes or expansions.

As the Right-to-Farm law now stands in Georgia, nuisance lawsuits are restricted if a plaintiff “moves to” the nuisance, i.e., if a person moves in near an already-existing poultry farm, that person would not generally be able to bring a nuisance suit against that poultry farm. However, HB 545, in addition to the limitations on proximity and ownership, would also limit nuisance suits regardless of who came first – the chicken or the neighbor. Moreover, the bill’s one-year time limit for bringing a nuisance suit would mean that even if the alleged nuisance-creating activity does not start or is not realized until after that one-year period, the nuisance suit would still be prohibited.

Agriculture contributes approximately $73.3 billion annually to Georgia's economy, according to the UGA Center for Agribusiness & Economic Development. One in seven Georgians works in agriculture, forestry or related fields, and Georgia is perennially the number one state in the nation in the production of peanuts, broilers (chickens), pecans, blueberries and spring onions. Georgia is also at or near the top when it comes to cotton, watermelon, peaches, eggs, cucumbers, sweet corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupes, rye and cabbage, per the Georgia Farm Bureau. Thus, the protection of farming and agri-business against those who would destroy it through opportunistic, but insincere, nuisance lawsuits is vital to the continued economic strength of the state and to the larger goal of keeping our nation fed.

HB 545 passed the Georgia House of Representatives on March 7th by a vote of 107 to 58 and was read and referred by the Georgia Senate the following day. It is currently before the Senate Agriculture Committee, and, according the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the bill’s chances of passage by the Georgia Senate are strong. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a strong supporter of the state’s agriculture, would seem a shoe-in to sign the bill if it lands on his desk, particularly if his Tweet from March 14, 2019, is any indication:

Todd C. Alley is a partner with Hawkins Parnell & Young’s Atlanta office. He is licensed in Georgia, Texas, and Florida, and practices in the firm’s environmental and toxic tort practice areas. Todd is a member of the American Agricultural Law Association and defends farmers and agricultural companies across the southeast in nuisance actions.