2020’s top legal developments in agricultural law (Ag Law)
(Editor’s note: Paul Goeringer is a University of Maryland Extension legal specialist in agricultural and resource economics. This column should not be interpreted as legal or financial advice for the reader.)
With 2020 over and 2021 just starting, I wanted to take a minute to look back at the top recent legal developments that are impacting agriculture.
In 2020, not all our issues are related to COVID-19, and we did have changes on another of legal fronts that impact agriculture.
Moving into 2021, we will see new issues emerge as continued lawsuits involving pesticides, continued implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill and COVID-19 relief bills, and possible appeals in a few cases on the list.
In November, the Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed the Court of Special Appeals’ decision that a poultry farm manager was not the co-employee poultry farm and poultry integrator.
The Court of Appeals found that the circuit court correctly submitted to the jury the question of co-employment.
The evidence on the farm manager being a co-employee was susceptible to differing reasonable inferences.
A jury could properly decide that the farm manager was not a co-employee.
The Court of Appeals does point out that a situation could be presented where a farm employee is a co-employee of the farm as well as the poultry integrator, but this was not the case here.
In 2018, the North Carolina hog farm litigation made the news with verdicts against Murphy-Brown, LLC totaling millions of dollars. Early in 2020, a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard an appeal, and we finally had an opinion issued in November.
In the opinion, the court upheld the compensatory and punitive damages and found that the amendments made to the state’s right-to-farm law did not apply retroactively.
These amendments would have limited the amount of compensatory damages available to the plaintiffs.
The court did agree that the punitive damages phase should have split from the compensatory stage.
The court remanded to the trial court for a new trial on the amount of punitive damages.
The day after the opinion was issued, Smithfield announced a confidential settlement agreement had settled the litigation.
In early June, the Ninth Circuit issued an order vacating the registrations for three dicamba-based herbicides based on flaws the court found with the three products’ 2018 registration process.
Shortly after that vacating order, the EPA announced a final cancellation, providing clarity to those in agriculture who utilize those products, and allowing usage of existing stocks of the three products through the end of July 2020.
In late October, EPA announced a new registration for the two dicamba-based herbicides and an extension of one other dicamba-based herbicide registration through the end of the 2025 growing season.
Commodity groups are currently challenging this new registration as possibly violating federal law for some additions in the usage requirements.
Stay tuned in 2021. I’m sure we will still be discussing this issue.
In April 2020, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland issued an opinion that the state’s recreational use statute did not protect a landowner who only opened his property up for a social gathering, resulting in the injury to one of the guests.
In that case, the landowner had the property fenced off with “No Trespassing” signage and locks on the gates to limit who could enter the property.
The landowner opened the property up only for this social event.
To the court, a landowner must do more to open the property up for a social event to gain protections from the recreational use statute.
EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers announced in 2020 the final Navigable Waters Protection Rule meant to provide a definition for “waters of the United States” in the Clean Water Act.
This rule is the final step in the Trump administration’s two-step process to replace the prior Waters of the U.S. rule.
We will have to wait and see how the Biden administration handles this rule, but we might see more movement on this rule in the future.
As you can see, a number of these issues are not settled, and we can expect additional developments in 2021.
We will also see new legal issues develop which we may not have considered.
Agricultural law is a field that is always developing.