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Minnesota Court of Appeals Affirms Stray Voltage Verdict

In a decision released today, February 22, 2016, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed a Cass County, Minnesota jury's verdict in favor of dairy farmers Randy and Peggy Norman.

The Normans brought suit against Crow Wing Power & Light Company for damages to their dairy caused by stray voltage emanating from Crow Wing Power's electrical distribution system. As a result of the stray voltage, the Normans had to sell their cows and stop dairy farming. On October 24, 2014, a jury returned a verdict finding in favor of the Normans, and awarded the Normans $4,861,478 in economic loss damages and $1,500,000 in nuisance damages. Crow Wing Power appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which affirmed the jury's verdict.

Attorneys Charles Bird and Jeremy Stevens from Bird Jacobsen & Stevens, PC represented the Normans in a three week trial resulting in the verdict. Bird and Stevens also represented the Normans on the appeal. The Court of Appeals made several significant rulings favorable to dairy farmers. The Court held that it is not necessary for farmers to prove through an electrical test when the stray voltage started on their farm. Instead, the past presence of stray voltage can be determined based upon retrospective opinions of experts who rule out other causes.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the allowance of damages of $4,861,478 for both lost profits and decreased feed efficiency. Crow Wing Power argued that this was a "double dip" in damages and asked for a new trial on damages. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, holding that both lost profits and excess costs are allowable measures of damages. The Court quoted approvingly from the testimony of Dr. Michael Behr, an agricultural economist who testified for the Normans. When asked if the two types of damages were duplicative, Dr. Behr answered "Absolutely not."

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the jury's award of $1.5 million for nuisance damages. The Court held that the trial record was "replete with evidence supporting their discomfort, annoyance, and loss of enjoyment of their property" and that the evidence included proof of "increased labor costs due to extra feces in the milking parlor and caring for sick cows, including forcing medication down the throats of the cows." The Court also mentioned that the "Normans were afraid to use their river for swimming and fishing, and were afraid to let their grandchildren pay outside due to stray voltage." In addition, the Court of Appeals rejected the argument of Crow Wing Power that nuisance actions predicated on negligence had to limit damages based upon the law of negligence. Instead, the Court held that Minn. Stat. s 561.01 allowed for expansive damages if use and enjoyment of private property is obstructed.

The Court of Appeals also rejected arguments made by Crow Wing Power that the jury instructions were erroneous, and that the Normans were not entitled to an injunction requiring Crow Wing Power to install 3-phase power lines from the substation to the farm. Finally, the Court held that Crow Wing Power's complaint about the form of the verdict was harmless error, because the trial court had carefully written the form so as not to confuse the jury.

The current amount due on the judgment is about $9 million. It is not known whether Crow Wing Power will appeal this decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Charles Bird said "We are hoping that Crow Wing Power stops the appeal and agrees to pay what is owed, so the Normans can get back into the business of dairy farming. There is no basis for further appeal, and the Normans deserve to resume their farming business this spring so they can plant crops, and buy cows and restore their dairy to operating condition."

The lawyers at Bird Jacobsen and Stevens, PC are committed to representing dairy farmers who suffer from stray voltage problems. Please contact us for a free consultation if you suspect you are the victim of this widespread electrical problem.

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