Iowa Supreme Court Expands Protections for Confined Animal Feeding Operations

Posted on: August 2nd, 2022

Plaintiff Gordon Garrison owned and lived on 300 acres of farmland in northern Iowa. In 2015, Defendants New Fashion Pork and BWT Holdings began operating a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) approximately a half mile away from Plaintiff’s property. Plaintiff alleged that his property began experiencing consistent bad odors and manure drainage, both produced by Defendants CAFO. Garrison filed, in part, a claim for nuisance.

Iowa Code section 657.11(2) provides immunity to animal feeding operations from public or private nuisance claims. However, under the statute, such immunity does not apply if the plaintiff proves that his or her injury is caused by:

  • The failure of the defendant to comply with a federal or state statute, regulation or rule; OR
  • Both of the following: (1) The animal feeding operation unreasonably and for substantial periods of time interferes with a person’s comfortable use and enjoyment of life or property, AND (2) The animal feeding operation failed to use existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation.

In 2004, in Gacke v. Pork Xtra, L.L.C., the Iowa Supreme Court found that section 657.11(2) unconstitutionally limited the nuisance claims of a plaintiff, if the plaintiff could show they:

  1. Received no particular benefit from the nuisance immunity granted to their neighbors other than that inuring to the public in general; and
  2. Sustained significant hardship; and
  3. Resided on their property long before any animal operation was commenced on neighboring land and had spent considerable sums of money in improvements to their property prior to the construction of the defendant’s facilities.

Defendants moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s nuisance claim, arguing that they were entitled to the nuisance immunity provided in Section 657.11(2). Plaintiff argued that section 657.11(2) was unconstitutional as applied to him. The district court ruled in favor of Defendants. Garrison appealed.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment ruling, and in the process overruled Gacke’s three part test. Addressing Gacke, the Court noted that all 50 states have a right to farm laws that provide farmers with various forms of statutory immunity from nuisance claims similar to Iowa Code Section 657.11(2). Iowa, the Court stated, is the “only state to hold that the statutory immunity available under its right-to-farm law is unconstitutional in any manner.” The Court explained that the three-part test in Gacke was “created out of whole cloth” and merely causes unnecessary litigation and is difficult to administer.

Instead, Section 657.11, like other regulatory statutes, must be evaluated under the highly deferential rational basis test—which evaluates whether there is a reasonable fit between the means used to advance the government interest and the interest itself. Here, the Court reasoned that protecting and promoting livestock production is a legitimate state interest, and Section 667.11(2)’s provision of partial immunity from nuisance suits is a proper means to that end. As such, the Iowa Supreme Court held Section 657.11(2) to be constitutional and found that it applied in this circumstance to provide immunity to Defendants.

The Court noted that Section 657.11(2) did not eliminate a plaintiff’s right to recover under a nuisance lawsuit altogether. Rather, neighboring property owners could recover for nuisance if the situation fit in with the exceptions provided within 657.11(2). Here it simply did not. Additionally, the Court explained the decision did not alter a plaintiff’s ability to recover for diminution of property value under a takings theory.

Garrison v. New Fashion Pork LLP and BWT Holdings LLP, Case No. 21-0652 (Iowa June 30, 2022).

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