The power lines servicing a rural Pine River farm must be replaced by Brainerd electrical cooperative Crow Wing Power, a Cass County judge ordered earlier this month.
Judge Jana M. Austad's order is the latest action in ongoing litigation between dairy farmers Randy and Peggy Norman and the power company, which last October was ordered to pay $6.3 million for negligence in its response to the farmers' concerns about stray voltage impacts on their property.
Attorneys for the Normans sought the power line replacement as part of injunctive relief for the farmers, who intend to start a new dairy farm on their property once the stray voltage issue is resolved.
For nearly 20 years, the Normans claimed to have experienced mysterious health issues with their dairy herd that eventually led them to shutter their business, Pine Valley Dairy, in 2012. The decision to close followed privately conducted tests that appeared to indicate stray voltage surged through the property.
Stray voltage has for some time been a concern of dairy farmers. In 2013, there were at least six active lawsuits by Minnesota farmers against utilities companies seeking damages from stray voltage, according to a Star Tribune story. The damages awarded to the Normans makes theirs the largest verdict in a stray voltage case in Minnesota history.
The stray electric current can course through the metal on a dairy farm, including through water troughs. This can lead to cows not drinking enough water, not eating enough food and a reduction in milk production as a result, according to a 2009 publication produced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Stray voltage can also cause the animals to produce a stress hormone, decreasing the ability to fight infection.
Crow Wing Power conducted its own testing at the property and found no evidence of stray voltage. Despite a lack of evidence from the company's perspective, it went ahead with upgrades to most of the power lines to please the property owners, according to Char Kinzer, public relations manager for the electricity cooperative.
"Our engineers definitely feel a new line is not necessary," Kinzer said. "The whole stray voltage case - we're not guilty."
Jeremy Stevens, the Normans' attorney, said the latest order for Crow Wing Power to replace "defective" power lines is part of their ongoing effort to collect damages from the company. The $4.8 million in economic loss damages and $1.5 million in nuisance damages were awarded based on losses incurred through the jury's decision Oct. 24. In the six months since the verdict, Stevens said, the Normans have continued to suffer economically while the cause of the stray voltage has not been addressed.
"It's problematic for us, because at the end of the day, Mr. Norman is still sitting there with an empty farm," Stevens said. "We have every intention of pursuing damages since that time until now."
In January, Crow Wing Power was denied a new trial by Austad and was ordered to pay an additional $315,000 to cover the Normans' court costs.
The latest order requires Crow Wing Power to modify electrical service by installing three-phase overhead power lines in lieu of the ground wiring currently powering the farm.
"Evidence at trial and post-trial hearings establishes that a three-phase electrical distribution system is the most appropriate modification to the current system serving (the) plaintiffs' farm," wrote Austad in the court order. "A three-phase system has overhead lines which may be less expensive to install. Overhead lines are easier to monitor for stray voltage, neutral conductor performance and neutral to earth contact."
In concluding the order, Austad said replacing the power lines "is necessary to prevent continuing great and irreparable injury to (the) plaintiffs."
Kinzer said the company's attorneys intend to file a notice of appeal and have the opportunity to do so within 60 days of the judge's May 1 order. When asked whether the company intends to bring the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court should the appeal be denied, Kinzer said the company is approaching the situation "one step at a time."