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.
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
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
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
"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
Majority Floor Leader Bill Friend
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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