Norman v. Crow Wing Cooperative Power & Light Co.

(Unpublished, No. A15–0983)

Minnesota Court of Appeals, Feb. 22, 2016

 

The appellate court in Norman v. Crow Wing Cooperative Power & Light Co. affirmed the district court’s rulings.

Randall and Peggy Norman were dairy farmers in Pine River, Minnesota from 1983 to 2012.  Crow Wing Cooperative Power & Light Company was a power company that provided electricity to the Normans’ farm.  In 1984, the Normans’ cow herd began experiencing health issues causing a decline in milk production and, consequently, an economic loss to the Normans.  Over the next 18 years, the Normans’ cows experienced unusual health issues, such as weight loss, infertility, and refusal to eat or drink.  In 1991 and 2011, stray voltage was detected on the farm.  The court notes that it is widely recognized that stray voltage can cause health issues in cows.

The Normans sued the electrical company alleging negligence and nuisance for the stray voltage.  After a three-week trial, a jury found the electrical company to be negligent and that the stray voltage created a nuisance.  The jury awarded the Normans over $6 million in damages.  The electrical company appealed.

The electrical company appealed several issues.  First, the company argued that the district court should not have allowed the Normans to recover damages dating back to 1994, since the first recorded stray voltage was not until 2011.  In this regard, the electrical company alleges that any damages awarded prior to 2011 were based on speculation and conjecture.  However, the appellate court notes that the jury heard evidence that the Normans’ heard had health issues dating back to 1994, and that those health issues were consistent with stray voltage.  As such, the court held that there was sufficient evidence on the record to support the jury’s verdict.

The electric company next claims that  the district court should have granted its motion for a new trial or for remittitur because some of the damages included lost profits twice, equating to a duplicative recovery.  However, the court held that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury award of both milk loss and reduced feed efficiency, which was not duplicative.

The electric company next argues that the jury’s award included impermissible emotional distress damages.  However, the appellate court ruled that the jury’s award was for loss of use and enjoyment in their property, which was a legitimate award of damages.

Next, the electric company argues that it was entitled to a new trial based on the district court’s erroneous instruction to the jury regarding the Normans’ burden to prove damages.  Specifically, the company argued that the district court improperly used the term “reasonable basis” rather than “reasonable certainty.”  However, the appellate court held that the district court’s instruction did not materially misstate the law and, as such, the company was not entitled to a new trial.

Next, the company argued that the special verdict form prevented the jury from attributing liability to the Normans’ management of their farm.  The company argued that this caused them prejudice.  The appellate court notes that it was not condoning the phrasing on the special verdict form, but that the wording would not have lead to a different damages award.  The court holds that the wording of the special verdict form was harmless.

Finally, the electric company argues that the district court abused its discretion by granting a permanent injunction to require significant structural changes to the delivery of electricity to the farm.  However, the appellate court notes that the district court considered expert opinions on the matter, and the appellate court defers to the district court on matters of witness credibility.

Ultimately, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s rulings.

 

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