Friday, March 1, 2013

Legislative Updates By Delegate Mike McDermott

Feb. 28th, 2013

‘HB 837 -- Protecting Maryland’s Farm Families’
(ANNAPOLIS) -- “The farming community plays an important role in our state’s economy. Since farmers are particularly vulnerable in these difficult economic times, we should not hesitate to ease their burden wherever we can, and stave off the frivolous environmental lawsuits taken against them.  HB 837 seeks to do just that,” declared Delegate Michael McDermott (R-Worcester and Wicomico Counties).

“The traditional family farm is a recognized heritage and treasure,” stated Delegate McDermott, “and farmers have proven themselves to be the original conservationists, continuing a strong tradition of protecting natural resources.” But a farm family today of limited means can find itself in court up against a multi-million dollar environmental group with endless resources at its disposal. As the cost of attorney fees runs up, the expense of the litigation alone can crush a farm into bankruptcy, regardless of its culpability in the case.

Under current law, a federal court can award legal expenses on behalf of a farm cleared of a clean-water regulatory violation, but no such recourse is available for a case in the state courts.  HB 837 (Family Farm - Prevailing Party - Attorney’s Fees and Expenses) allows a court to award reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses to a family farm  that is sued for causing water pollution but is successful in the case outcome.  This law would cover cases similar to the one that was brought against the Hudson Family Farm.  In 2010, the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, the Assateague Coastkeeper, and the Waterkeeper Alliance filed a suit against Alan and Kristin Hudson, alleging that the farm’s operations were polluting Maryland’s waters.  In December 2012, the judge ruled in favor of the Hudsons, since there was insufficient evidence to show that their farm was the source of the pollution.  However, the Hudsons now face $3 million in legal fees and expenses.

The bill does not apply to local governments and does not undermine their authority and duty to enforce local environmental laws. It does however, protect farms from spurious suits by putting the burden of paying legal expenses on the prosecution.

Yesterday HB 837 was heard in the House Judiciary Committee.  Both the Maryland Farm Bureau and Delmarva Poultry Industry voiced their strong support for the bill.  HB 837 has not yet received a vote from the Committee.

“Sadly, this is something that Maryland has never had to contemplate before, but today we must take action to insure that our future farmers will have the hope of carrying on their family legacy.  The time has come to stand up and draw a line in the sand.”  said Delegate McDermott.

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