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Wallace and Graham receive Trial Lawyer of the Year award

Local law firm Wallace & Graham on Thursday was awarded 2020’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award by national nonprofit legal advocacy organization Public Justice. 

Erin Brockovich served as master of ceremonies for the gala, held virtually this year due to COVID-19.

The firm was honored for its seven-year battle against the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, now owned by a Chinese conglomerate. In a news release, Wallace and Graham said its clients had deep roots in their rural communities, but had their lives changed when factory farms were built within feet of their homes. Smithfield directed farms to use a waste disposal system, which consisted of hog urine and feces dropping beneath slats on the floors and tunneling into open-air lagoons that were up to three acres, a news release stated. To prevent flooding of the lagoon, the waste was frequently sprayed into the air as a fertilizer.

The lawsuit alleged neighbors suffered from things that no property owner should have to endure — horrible odor, clouds of flies, buzzards circling, trucks leaking filth and waking them up in the middle of the night as well as children being teased for smelling like hogs. 

Five separate three- to four-week trials took place in 2018 and 2019, with each eastern North Carolina jury unanimously returning verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs totaling more than $500 million, including the largest verdict in North Carolina history.  

The plaintiffs faced many obstacles along the way, including new legislation which would have effectively granted retroactive immunity to Smithfield from these suits, and organized hog rallies blocks from the courthouse steps, a news release said. 

Accepting the award on behalf of the firm, Mona Lisa Wallace emphasized the bravery of her clients to fight for change and the courage of the testifying witnesses and experts, such as Harnett County hog farmer Tom Butler who testified in each trial that there were economically feasible alternatives that eliminated the harm to nearby neighbors.  

The cases are currently on appeal at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, but the verdicts have already caused lasting, positive change in the industry, a news release said.

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