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Utah bill to shield utility from cow death lawsuit dies

Published March 1, 2013 10:12 pm

Litigation • Dairy farmers now clear to pursue damages over 'stray electricity.'
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah dairy owners won a hard-fought victory on Friday over the giant Intermountain Power Plant and its allies.

The state Senate's Business and Labor Committee declined to give its support to SB 217 — legislation that if passed would have forced the dairy farmers to drop their nearly decade-old lawsuit against the company over claims that stray electricity from transmission lines serving the giant plant near Delta has been sickening and killing their cows.

"We're just grateful that the members of the Business and Labor Committee were willing to listen to us, and we now get a chance to present our case in a court of law," said Maria Nye, who with her husband, operates a dairy farm in Millard County.

Well over a decade ago, dairy farmers operating near the IPP began to complain that inordinate numbers of cows in their herds were getting sick and dying of ailments that should have been treatable. They came to believe electrical currents surging through the ground from the nearby coal-fired power plant were compromising their cows' immune systems.

After years of legal maneuvers — including two requests for a change of venue by IPP operators and one by the dairy operators — attorneys for the dairy farmers said they are only a few weeks away from setting a date for a trial that could begin before the end of the year.

The IPP, though, was hoping to avoid a trial with SB 217 .

The measure would have protected IPP from having to pay damages to livestock owners and render it liable only if the stray voltage from their plant and transmission lines far exceeded the level that dairy farmers contend is harming their animals.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who sponsored SB 217, described it as "serving the greater public good" by protecting electricity producers from frivolous lawsuits. The farmers are suing over "less electricity than is in this Triple A battery," Weiler said, holding one between his fingers for other committee members to see.

Countered Mike Kohler of the Dairy Producers of Utah, who spoke against the bill, "I guarantee you I could put that battery against certain parts of your body and get your attention."

Several representatives from the Intermountain Power Agency, which oversees the operations of the IPP, repeated the contention that the bill would prevent frivolous lawsuits. Referring to the dairy farmers' legal action, they said "if it is frivolous now, it was frivolous five years ago and frivolous 10 years ago."

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who chairs the committee, didn't buy that argument, pointing out that courts can issue sanctions against such suits. He asked an IPP lawyer whether in the 10 years since the dairy farmer's lawsuit was filed the power company had ever filed a complaint.

IPP attorney Brandon Mark answered simply, "No."

Committee member Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said he had reservations about the bill because it would require the Legislature to rule on a scientific standard — the amount of electricity that could harm farm animals — for which it was ill prepared.

Although Weiler argued that his bill relied upon established scientific standards, the dairy farmers' attorney, Richard Burbidge, noted that experts they relied on weren't so sure. "There is simply no scientific consensus on those standards," he said.

Senators declined to pass SB 217 out of the committee by a 4-2, with only Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, and Weiler voting to send it on for further consideration.