The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the state's largest jury verdict involving a dairy farmer whose dairy cows were seriously injured or died from stray voltage.
Unless the Crow Wing Cooperative Power & Light Co. successfully appeals Monday's ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, Randall Norman of Pine River is set to receive $9 million, which includes lawyers' fees and other expenses. For years, he watched negligent delivery of electrical services destroy his herd or decrease milk production. By 2012, he said he was pushed to edge and had to liquidate the business.
"I would watch the cows barely drink water because they were shocked by the fountain," he said. "I begged the co-op to work with us and solve the problem, but they literally kicked us out of meetings."
Following a $10 million stray voltage jury verdict in Idaho that was later settled for a lesser amount, Norman's damage amount is the second largest in the United States, said one of his attorneys, Charles Bird. The replacement of older power lines has decreased such cases, but the risk to cows still exists because more newer equipment carries stronger currents and higher usage demands.
Eric Magnuson, an attorney for the co-op, said it was disappointing the court found that the district trial judge made an error when submitting the case to the jury, but concluded there was no prejudice from the mistake. The verdict form given to the jury didn't ask them if they found fault with the Normans' farm design or maintenance and was narrowly tailored to only allow damages caused by the cooperative's negligence, the ruling said.
"We are evaluating our next steps," Magnuson said.
Norman, 57, his wife, Peggy, and several of their children operated the dairy farm from 1983 to 2012. Norman's great-grandfather homesteaded the land, and the younger Norman grew his farm to 400 cows on 800 acres that employed nine people.
He noticed cows started to experience health issues in 1994, including difficulty getting pregnant and excessive weight loss. Over the next 18 years, the herd's milk production declined to 20 percent below the state average.
In appealing the $6.4 million jury award in 2014 and additional fees that would be tacked on later, the co-op argued six issues including that the evidence didn't establish that damages to the cows started to accrue in 1994 and the negligence award was calculated incorrectly.
Cows conduct current
In the suit, Norman argued that cows become a pathway for electrical currents to complete circuits back to substations scattered across farm country. Electricity needs to run in a complete circuit. If it can't return to its source because the lines are in disrepair or overloaded, it runs through the ground via the lines' grounding rods.
When a dairy farm is in its path, mud, metal milk machines and water troughs conduct the current to the cows, shocking them. Farmers say that causes the animals to drink less water and eat less, and it compromises their immune systems.
The three-week trial had competing expert testimony, and the Court of Appeals declined to overrule the lower court's decision on which claims were more credible. In 2012, the appeals court also affirmed a similar case involving Harlan Poppler, a Waverly farmer who was awarded $700,000 in damages.
Norman has become good friends with Poppler, and he said the stories they share echo the same issues. They just didn't believe stray voltage was making their herds ill, but as they searched for the cause, it became horrific to watch.
Norman and his wife attended two co-op meetings and told board directors they were willing to pay for a new power line, but the co-op initially refused. Randall Norman was allowed to talk for only five minutes at one of the meetings.
"We felt so betrayed by the co-op," he said. "They should be ashamed of themselves."
The long legal battle has crushed dreams and created disarray in his family. All four of his children, ages 17 to 31, played a role on the farm.
"We were losing a cow a week at one point," Norman said. "One of my sons would spend hours with the sick cows, then do farm duties and return to the sick cows again. He poured his heart and soul into the farm."
The family is growing crops until the settlement becomes a reality. It looks like a lot of money, he said, but "we are in a pretty deep hole."
"I'm not sure if we will recover or what the farm may look like," he said. "I want it to stay in the family. Our prayers are that we can do it."