A bill to protect livestock farms from “frivolous lawsuits” is advancing in the Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill (HB) 1091 already passed the Indiana House on a 57-to-39 vote and is awaiting action in the Senate.  The measure resembles other recent attempts in farm states to impose criminal sanctions for defaming agricultural products or extend commercial privacy to prohibit undercover farm animal videos.

According to a summary, the bill:

– Provides that if a court finds that an agricultural operation that is the subject of a nuisance action was not a nuisance and that the nuisance action was frivolous, initiated maliciously, or groundless, the court shall award the expenses of litigation, including reasonable attorney’s fees, to the defendant in the action. 

– Provides that a choice of forum clause in a contract involving goods, services, or leases related to agricultural products, livestock, poultry, livestock products, poultry products, or an agricultural operation is not enforceable when the amount of damages being sought is less than $25,000.

Reps. Bill Friend and Don Lehe, both Republicans, introduced HB 1091 when the current legislative session got underway in early January.  They say Indiana livestock producers need protection from frivolous lawsuits.

Best known of the state laws to give agriculture extra protections were the so-called food disparagement laws that were passed by 13 states, mostly in the 1990s.   It was under once of these measures that Texas cattlemen in 1998 sued TV icon Oprah Winfrey.

The cattlemen claimed their perishable beef was defamed by an Oprah television show on Mad Cow Disease.   Texas juries found the cattlemen were not defamed.

And while food disparagement laws, sometimes called food or veggie libel laws,were once thought a possible barrier for litigation brought on behalf of victims of foodborne illness, they have not turned out to be meaningful in that arena.

As HB 1091 is considered in the Indiana Senate, it will have opposition from the state’s environmental lobby, which says such a law would have a “chilling effect” on legitimate litigation involving livestock producers.