by Nadia Pflaum
Ed Venerable's routine as a 30-something I.T. guy was disrupted in February by a summons for jury duty. Rather than troubleshooting at a keyboard, Venerable spent five weeks in a Jackson County courtroom, listening to testimony about pig shit.
As this week's feature describes, Venerable and his fellow jurors ultimately found Premium Standard Farms liable for causing a prolonged nuisance to their neighbors, a group of farmers who own property near PSF's Homan farm in Gentry County, Missouri. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $11 million for the rank odors that continue to waft from PSF's 80,000 hogs and their waste.
Meanwhile, PSF's attorneys installed a shadow jury to watch the proceedings. The shadow jurors found in favor of PSF. Venerable thinks there's a pretty obvious reason for that.
"[The shadow jurors] were getting paid $150 a day to attend and listen," says Venerable, who was paid $6 a day as a real juror -- barely enough to cover his parking fees. "I would think in some ways they would feel slightly obligated [to PSF]."
The shadow jurors who spoke with The Pitch said they were never certain that they were hired by the defense. Hearing this, Venerable says, "Yeah, sure. You know the plaintiffs aren't paying you to come in for $150 a day. Just use basic deductive reasoning. And when they [the shadow jurors] come to court, whose side do they sit on?" (Answer: the defendants' side.)
Venerable feels that he and his fellow jurors made the right decision based on the facts of the case. "There was evidence that [PSF] has a problem, because they have decrees against them from federal court, the attorney general and Missouri's Department of Natural Resources. And people on the defense are saying there is no odor problem? I wasn't born last night. ... Money is not an issue for this company. ... It's just one of those things, you've got companies who are going to do the bare minimum, and the only way they will understand is if you hit 'em in their pocket and affect the bottom line."
The shadow jury didn't think the hog smell described by the plaintiffs amounted to "substantial impairment." But Venerable put himself in the farmers' shoes. "It's like you going to your office everyday, and there's a foul odor coming from the sewer plant next door. You gotta go to work but it's not a good environment to work in, to have to smell that."
One shadow juror in this week's story felt as though the plaintiffs were exaggerating their claims. Venerable disagrees. "There was validity to their complaints. They were honest people -- even some of the witnesses for the defense said they'd known them for ten years and said they were upstanding people. I don't believe those people would make up a fake lawsuit and see it through for 10 years."
Venerable brings up PSF's post-verdict press release, which called the proceedings a "gang trial" that resulted in a "gang verdict." It had been PSF's lawyers' contention that lawsuits filed by a multitude of plaintiffs unfairly sway juries to the plaintiff's side. Venerable says, "Right -- but you [PSF] got all the resources on your side."
In recent weeks, Venerable says, he received a call from someone with a market research group who gave his name as "Jack." Jack wanted to know why Venerable and the other two African Americans on the jury didn't side with PSF (whose lead attorney, Jonathan Harmon, is black). Venerable says he figured that PSF had hired the researchers to collect information that would better their strategy in future cases, and he declined to help.
"After I hung up the phone, I thought, 'I should have asked, Why is that? Is it because the lead attorney is black? Is that why you thought we'd vote that way?' It kind of made me mad," Venerable says. "Like, 'So what are you saying?'"
Venerable would agree that all the money PSF has spent on pricey legal experts and market research would have been better spent on the root of the problem: finding a method to make a profit off pork that doesn't require PSF's neighbors, or PSF's product, to suffer needlessly.