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Did power company try to manipulate jury pool in Utah dairies’ suit?

About a month before a jury was seated in Nephi to weigh the alleged impacts of “stray electricity” coming off the Intermountain Power Plant, more than 500 employees gathered to hear from management about the case, filed by numerous dairies that claim the plant is sickening their cows.

General Manager Jon Christensen told the employees that if IPP lost at trial, the Delta plant would go out of business, according to recent court filings in 4th District Court, where the dispute has simmered for years.

After a month of trial last fall, Judge James Brady declared a mistrial after a juror informed him that family members pressured her to vote against the dairies because jobs would be lost should the company lose at trial.

The dairies’ lawyers point to the juror’s admission as proof plant managers “manufactured and publicized an inflammatory lie to prevent Plaintiffs from receiving a fair trial” in neighboring Juab County, where the case had been transferred.

On Friday, Brady ruled there is enough substance to the charges to allow the dairies’ lawyers to conduct a limited investigation. The dairies had unsuccessfully asked him to enter a default judgement of $500 million against the plant.

The ruling will lead to further depositions and document requests in a case that has already dragged on over countless courtroom disputes over fact and law.

The six Millard County dairies say current “leaking” from the plant or transmission equipment through the ground under their pastures has ruined the health of their cows, pushing up mortality rates and driving down production. Two similar suits brought by a dozen other dairies are queued up at the courthouse door.

A lot is at stake for the 1,900 megawatt power plant, which sends most of its output as direct current to Southern California. But the dairies argue plant managers know a loss at trial would not kill the plant.

“Their $100 million insurance policy would cover a large part of any judgment and the rest would be paid through revenues without a shutdown,” wrote attorney Jefferson Gross. This “propaganda campaign” was orchestrated to influence public perceptions in the community that would provide the jurors, he said.

“This is jury tampering,” Gross wrote. “Defendant’s scheme worked, and the result was not only a mistrial, but proof that a fair trail cannot be obtained in any place where IPP has influence over members of the jury pool, their families and their friends.”

Not so, responded IPP’s lawyers in their filings, which conceded plant managers did tell employees that an unfavorable ruling would be bad for the plant.

Whatever managers said, however, was not intended to influence the community and there is no evidence the jury pool is tainted, wrote defense lawyer Francis Wikstrom. He argued that the lead plaintiffs John and Maria Nye, owners of Mountain View Dairy, generated far more pre-trial publicity by giving interviews to the press.

The juror in question had told the judge that pressure from her family did not affect her impartiality, Wikstrom wrote. Although IPP did not oppose the mistrial motion, its lawyers now argue it was not even necessary to pull the plug on the trial.

But the judge was not swayed and gave the two sides until May 17 to propose plans for limited investigation, or discovery. The dairies intend to depose Christensen and the juror’s family members.

At the very least, the plaintiffs hope Brady will eventually order IPP to cover their trial costs and move the next trial to Salt Lake City.

A voicemail left with an IPP spokesman was not returned Monday.

Also last week, Brady denied key parts of a defense motion for a verdict in IPP’s favor. The plant had argued that the dairies failed to provide sufficient evidence at trial that stray current from the plant is harming their cows.

bmaffly@sltrib.com

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