Prestage Farms CAFO in Poweshiek County not protected from nuisance suit by Iowa Code

by Gary Taylor

Patricia McIlrath v. Prestage Farms of Iowa, LLC
Iowa Court of Appeals, November 23, 2016

The McIlraths purchased their farm in rural Poweshiek County in 1971.  Their son and his family also live on the farm, in a house about 300 feet from the original farmhouse where Patricia and her husband live.  In 2012 Prestage Farms built an animal confinement facility (CAFO) for 2,496 hogs about 2,200 feet from the McIlrath’s home.  In July 2013, the McIlraths brought suit against Prestage, claiming the odor from the CAFO constituted a nuisance.  Prestage requested summary judgment prior to trial, claiming immunity from the suit based on Iowa Code 657.11(2) (Iowa’s right-to-farm legislation), but the Poweshiek District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the McIlraths on this point, finding section 657.11 to be unconstitutional based on the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Gacke v. Pork Xtra.  The Court found, even if the statute was not unconstitutional based on the facts of the case, the statute would not provide immunity to Prestage Farms if (1) the CAFO unreasonably and for substantial periods of time interfered with the person’s comfortable use and enjoyment of the person’s life and property, and (2) the CAFO failed to use existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation.  The jury returned a verdict affirmatively determining that both points were met by the evidence.  It awarded damages of $100,000 for loss of past enjoyment, $300,000 for loss of future enjoyment, and $125,000 for diminution of property value.  Prestage appealed.

The Court of Appeals first examined Prestage’s claim that Iowa Code 657.11 in fact confers immunity from nuisance claims in the present case.  The court focused on the following passage from Gacke:

Property owners like the Gackes bear the brunt of the undesirable impact of this statute without any corresponding benefit.  Moreover, their right to use and enjoy their property is significantly impaired by a business operated as a nuisance, yet they have no remedy.  Unlike a property owner who comes to a nuisance, these landowners lived on and invested in their property long before Pork Xtra constructed its confinement facilities.  Under these circumstances, the police power is not used for its traditional purpose of insuring that individual citizens use their property “with due regard to the personal and property rights and privileges of others.”  [citation omitted].  Instead, one property owner—the producer—is given the right to use his property without due regard for the personal and property rights of his neighbor.  We conclude that section 657.11(2) as applied to the Gackes is unduly oppressive and, therefore, not a reasonable exercise of the state’s police power.  Accordingly, the statutory immunity violates article I, section 1 of the Iowa Constitution and may not be relied upon as a defense in this case.  We express no opinion as to whether the statute might be constitutionally applied under other circumstances.

The Court of Appeals concluded that in all relevant aspects, the factual situation in the present case was substantially similar to that presented in Gacke, making 657.11 unconstitutional in the present case.  There was no evidence McIlraths received any benefit from the statute, and they lived on and made improvements to their property long before the CAFO was built.

Prestage claimed several irregularities in the trial proceedings warranted a new trial; however, the Court of Appeals rejected all Prestage’s claims. Similarly, the court rejected all claims of Prestage that the evidence submitted at trial was insufficient to support the jury’s conclusion of liability and award of damages.

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