Rep. Douglas Gutwein, R-Francesville, must

have hoped for a break when he headed for his House Ag and Rural Development

Committee meeting on Tuesday morning.

Minutes before the ag meeting, Gutwein chaired the Employment, Labor and Pensions

Committee where lawmakers voted to advance the right-to-work legislation riling

labor opposition statewide. Democrats,

who had voiced their opposition to the bill by boycotting House activities last

week — including the hours of hearings Gutwein

held — objected to fast-tracking the bill without more deliberation.

Accusations of

dictatorship and other less-than-flattering name calling

followed. The ag committee

offered a break from the personal attacks, but it also opened the door to

another contentious bill — an innocuously titled piece of legislation HB

1091: Agricultural Operations

.

In short, it addresses meth and frivolous lawsuits against

farmers. The committee voted 9-3 to advance the bill, but several witnesses

noted various concerns.

The House is now clear to hold floor debate on both

right-to-work legislation and the CAFO/meth bill. As reports of fomenting

unrest among the Democrats continue Tuesday afternoon, though, it is unclear

how soon any legislative efforts will advance.

Punitive or Protective

Farm interests including Indiana

Farm Bureau

and the Indiana Pork

Producers Association

argue HB 1091 is essential to protect producers from

a cottage legal industry bent on kneecapping confined feeding operations.

Rural watchdogs claim the bill will have a chilling effect

on plaintiffs' willingness to bring justified concerns to court.

In an email circulated before the hearing, public interest

attorney Kim

Ferraro

of the Hoosier

Environmental Council

took her rhetoric one step further:

"Given the significant hurdles already in place that

limit the ability of CAFO communities to protect themselves," she wrote,

"this is probably the most repulsive, underhanded and unjust piece of

proposed legislation I've ever seen."

She did not go so far in her testimony to the committee, but

emphasized several areas that opponents of the legislation consider weaknesses.

First, she said, the legal mechanism to protect farmers from

frivolous lawsuits already exists in federal and state law as well as the

ethics code governing attorneys.

"We already have right-to-farm (legislation protecting

farmers' ability to pursue their occupation without baseless

interference)," Ferraro said. "No other industry is afforded these

protections (included in the proposed bill) ... It seems the purpose is to have a

chilling effect."

Majority

Floor Leader Bill Friend

, R-Macy, who authored the bill, is a

fifth-generation farmer. In 2000, his farm modernized its swine production

segment into a confined feeding

operation. He has had no problem

with lawsuits, complaints or violations, he said, but in meetings throughout

his district he said he heard stories of difficulties with both frivolous

lawsuits and rampant examples of squatting meth makers holing up in sleepy

areas of rural property to engage in the nefarious activities associated with

their addiction.

"I've always opposed the bad actor. ... I want them out

of business," Friend said. "If people are paying fines just as a cost

of doing business, I want rules stringent enough to get rid of them and allow

someone of a different temperament to do the job."

In addition, Friend said he did not want to deny Hoosiers

access to the legal system, but he also does not want to see courts clogged

with baseless cases.

"Seventy-five to 80 percent of producers do a very good

job," said Barbara

Sha Cox

, a rural resident and longtime CAFO watchdog.

But when property owners are deprived of the enjoyment of that property, she

added, "We do need to not have intimidation where we feel scared to go to

court."

Other proponents of the legislation emphasize how delays in

expansion projects, which often require hundreds of thousands or even millions

of dollars to advance, can handicap or even bankrupt producers as legal delays

unfold.

Vigilante Justice

In addition to offering more robust protections for ag-based victims of frivolous lawsuits, HB 1091 would allow

farmers to detain meth makers for "a reasonable amount of time" not

to exceed two hours.

House Ag Committee members did not focus much on the

concerns of CAFO watchdogs, concentrating more on fears for the safety of

farmers who may try to intervene in meth-making operations and the potential

for Wild West-style vigilante justice.

Rep.

Kreg Battles

, D-Vincennes, was successful in his

attempt to amend the bill to remove a provision that would have allowed a judge

to award punitive damages in addition to court costs for a wronged farmer.

Battles said the amendment should bring the bill into line

with current state law preventing frivolous lawsuits.

HB 1091 would have been the first state law to allow

punitive damages for filing a motion, said Warren Mathies

of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association. Mathies

also testified against the bill, suggesting that the committee look to the

state's Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) for

guidance on how to tailor the bill to move for speedy dismissal of baseless

claims.

Friend said he would explore adding a motion-to-dismiss

amendment as the bill proceeds through the legislative process. After the

hearing, he said he does not believe existing law provides adequate provisions

to make targets of baseless lawsuits financially whole because the law states

that courts may not

shall require plaintiffs to

cover defendants' attorneys fees and court costs.

Justin Schneider, a Indiana Farm

Bureau staff attorney, testified that he has personally witnessedseveral cases where judges decline to

award court costs to defendants because of a fear that it will somehow look

bad.

Michael Platt, executive director of the Indiana Pork

Producers, represents about 3,000 pork producers statewide and about 75 percent

of regulated CAFOS in state.

He testified that he is seeing more attorneys file suits

against CAFOS with the "express purpose of delaying and disrupting industry

expansion." While IPPA favors industry players adhering to the laws and

rules governing CAFOS, as well as citizens' ability to go to court, Platt said "we don't support efforts to delay development. ...

If cases are frivolous, we want to make sure the producer is made whole."

Sorting through the rhetoric

Outside of the Statehouse, in rural counties across the

state, the subject of this bill translates to a real issue of justice for both

farmers and the neighbors of CAFOs.

"Several nuisance lawsuits filed ... often (target farms)

with good records with no history of complaints," said IFB's

Schneider."Not all but the

majority."

And, he noted, the cases are expensive to defend.

Cox, who tracks CAFO construction and complaints, disputed

the proponents' claim that the majority of the suits filed against CAFOs are baseless. But neither side had handy a list of

the active lawsuits currently pending with the operations' environmental

compliance history.

Though NUVO could not compile such a list on deadline,

efforts are now underway to complete such an analysis. Check NUVO.net for

updates between weekly printings.

All photos by Rebecca Townsend

0
0
0
0
0

Recommended for you