Summary of Vermont Supreme Court Decisions
Trickett v. Ochs, 176 Vt. 89, 838 A.2d 66 (2003). Here, the Supreme Court established that the conditions required by right-to-farm would be interpreted narrowly, and that farmers needed to completely fulfill them in order to successfully invoke the defense. In Trickett v. Ochs,8 the Tricketts brought a nuisance suit against an adjacent orchard owner, the Ochs, alleging that the operation of the orchard interfered with the use and enjoyment of their land. The Ochs argued that they were protected by right-to-farm because the orchard existed prior to the Tricketts occupation of their house. The Court, however, found that the Ochs did not meet the conditions of 12 V.S.A. 5753 as originally enacted and were thus not protected by right-to-farm.
First, Ochs was not protected by right-to-farm because the Trickett’s residence did not encroach on their farm. The court found that the purpose of the law was to protect farmers from urban encroachment.9 Here, however, the plaintiffs’ residence was originally owned by the orchard owners, and served as their farmhouse. Because the residential structure existed approximately as long as the farm did, there was no actual encroachment of a residence on a farm.
Next, Ochs was not protected because the activities that were causing the nuisance had not been conducted before the Tricketts purchased the house. According to the right-to-farm statute, agricultural activities must be “established prior to surrounding nonagricultural activities.”10
When the plaintiffs acquired the house, the orchard’s operation did not include apple waxing or frequent tractor trailer traffic. It was these activities that caused the problems giving rise to the nuisance claim (exhaust fumes, excessive noise and light at all hours of the day and night), and the defendants did not conduct them before the plaintiffs moved in. Thus, the court found that right-to-farm did not protect the defendants because the plaintiffs’ residency began before the problematic activities that caused the nuisance. (This requirement was made specific in the 2004 amendments to the statute.)11
Finally, the court found that the defendants could not invoke right-to-farm because there are no agricultural regulations for noise or truck exhaust. According to the statue, agricultural practices must be “conducted in conformity with federal, state, and local laws and regulations.”12 Here, however, the plaintiff’s main complaint involved noise. Though the defendant’s farm was operating in accordance with all existing regulations, the court found that it would have been impossible for them to be operating in accordance with a regulation that did not exist. Thus, because “there is no applicable regulation of the activities that form the basis of plaintiffs’ complaint,” right-to-farm did not apply in this case.13 The court further reasoned that because lawful activities can still be nuisances, the lack of a noise regulation should not allow the defendants to invoke right-to-farm as a defense. The court’s reasoning on this point is somewhat attenuated, and seems to be more concerned with achieving the desired result than being grounded in sound legal reasoning. Regardless, this does suggest that courts in Vermont will be likely to look at the facts of a case as a whole when making decisions involving right-to-farm.
Coty v. Ramsey Associates, 149 Vt. 451, 546 A.2d 196 (1988). In this case the Court held that right-to-farm does not protect agricultural operations that are run for the purpose of malice or spite. The story in Coty, a case with unusual and extreme facts, began when the plaintiffs successfully opposed the defendants’ attempt to construct a large hotel on their property. Shortly after, the defendants started a pig farm and began dumping waste manure on property adjoining the plaintiffs’ property. The plaintiffs brought a nuisance suit against the defendants, and the defendants argued that they were protected by right-to-farm. The facts of the case, however, made it clear that the defendants had started the farm strictly for the purpose of antagonizing the plaintiffs, and had no intention of making a profit. Thus, the Court held that the operation of the farm constituted an actionable nuisance.
John Larkin, Inc., v. Marceau, 184 Vt. 207, 959 A.2d 551, 2008 VT 61. Here, the plaintiff sought to characterize an invasion of pesticides from neighboring farmlands as a trespass rather than a nuisance in order to avoid facing the right-to-farm defense. The court, however, found that there was no actionable impact on the land from the pesticides, so it could not be a trespass. Though they did not decide whether particulate matter may be a trespass in some cases, the court made it clear that they will not allow nuisance claims to be pursued as trespass claims solely for the sake of avoiding a right-to-farm defense.
11 176 Vt. at 99. See 12 V.S.A. § 5753(a)(1)(D), above at note 6.
12 V.S.A. § 5753 (a), carried forward in 2004 as 12 V.S.A. § 5753 (a)(1)(A).
13 176 Vt. at 102.