April 26, 2017. Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee approved a revised version of House Bill 467. The Senate changes resolve some of the questions noted in the earlier post about the bill’s impact on availability of punitive damages and compensation for injury other than lost property value.
The version approved by the Senate committee has a new subsection that reads:
(d) This Article does not apply to any cause of action brought against an agricultural or forestry operation for negligence, trespass, personal injury, strict liability, or other cause of action for tort liability other than nuisance, nor does this Article prohibit or limit any request for injunctive relief or punitive damages that are otherwise available.
The Senate language:
♦ Expressly allows an award of punitive damages against an agricultural or forestry operation based on existing standards in North Carolina law.
♦ Makes it clear that the bill does not limit compensation a plaintiff can receive under legal theories other than nuisance — including negligence, trespass, strict liability “or other cause of action for tort liability other than nuisance”. In legal-speak, a “tort” means a wrongful act injuring another person and recognized by law as the basis for a civil lawsuit. The injury may be damage to reputation or property as well as physical injury.
Under “strict liability”, a person can be held legally responsible for harm even if there is no evidence of negligence. Historically, strict liability has applied only to a very narrow set of activities considered to be ultrahazardous — the classic example has been use of explosives. Few (if any) activities associated with an agricultural or forestry operation would fall under strict liability standards.
As applied to agricultural and forestry operations, the most significant implications of the Senate language are: 1. recognition of a plaintiff’s ability to receive compensation (beyond fair market value of the property) for harm caused by negligence or trespass; and 2. preservation of the potential for punitive damages in a particularly egregious nuisance case.
One reference in the new Senate language is not like the others — unlike nuisance, negligence, or trespass, “personal injury” in itself is not a cause of action. Instead, “personal injury” describes a type of harm the plaintiff may have suffered as a result of negligence, nuisance, trespass or some other tort.
The House version of H 467 limited damages for nuisance to fair market value or fair rental value of the property affected — apparently excluding compensation for health effects caused by the nuisance condition. Given the context, It isn’t clear whether the Senate language intends to allow compensation for health effects in a nuisance action against an agricultural/forestry operation — or simply acknowledges the possibility of compensation for personal injury under another legal theory such as negligence.
The bill has now been referred to a Senate Judiciary Committee for review before going to the Senate floor.