Landmark Stray Voltage Case!

January 27th, 2011


Above, equipotential plane for treating manifestations of stray voltage — it does NOT eliminate stray voltage!  See 2006 MREC Equipotential Planes for explanation.

Yesterday, the Minnesota Supreme Court released a landmark stray voltage opinion, clarifying the breadth of the “filed rate” and “primary jurisdiction” doctrines declaring that they do not limit suits for stray voltage damages against utilities.  This has been a six year lawsuit for the Siewerts so far…

Siewert v. Northern States Power d/b/a Xcel Energy

Here’s the STrib’s article — hmmmmm… no comments allowed!  I wonder why that is?

Supreme Court rules for farmers in stray-voltage case

In a divided opinion, the state court’s decision allows a father and son to pursue damages to their dairy herd blamed on excess voltage from Xcel Energy.

By JIM ANDERSON, Star Tribune

Last update: January 27, 2011 – 10:03 AM

In a ruling on an issue that has long vexed the state’s dairy industry, a divided Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that two Wabasha County farmers can seek $4 million in damages from Xcel Energy for damages to their herd through stray voltage.

Stray voltage — the subject of much debate, research and legal action over the past several decades — is a phenomenon caused by low levels of excess electricity passing via the ground between two contact points through an object not intended to be a conductor.

In the case of dairy cattle, it is claimed the continued stress of mild shocks thwarts milk production and damages their health.

“We’re very pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Greg Siewert, who farms with his father, Harlan, in Zumbro Falls. The Siewerts first filed suit against Northern States Power Co., a subsidiary of Xcel, in 2004.
Among other issues, Xcel had argued that the case belongs before the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), not the courts, because the damages could affect electricity rates paid by all NSP customers. The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed, and the state’s high court backed that decision.

The civil case now goes back to Wabasha County District Court for trial.

For the Siewerts, the problems began almost immediately in 1989 when they moved their 200-cow operation to a new farm. Milk production plummeted, their cows had an unusually high rate of health problems. Cows died by the dozens.

“It’s a slow tortuous death, is what it is for them,” Siewert told the Star Tribune in 2008. “It’s like watching someone die of AIDS.”

The Siewerts hired experts to help figure out the source of the problem. In 2004, a forensic veterinarian pointed them to stray voltage as the possible culprit.

After an electrician found that 1.5 volts of electricity was routinely passing through their cows, a level considered excessive, the Siewerts took several measures to prevent the excess voltage — frequently working with NSP. But when losses kept mounting, the Siewerts sued.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, in a partial dissent joined by Justice Christopher Dietzen, warned that the court might be overstepping its bounds, taking on a task charged to the PUC.

“This case is about the manner in which NSP provides electrical service,” she wrote. “The Siewerts contend that NSP is causing a nuisance through the manner in which it provides electricity. Any order to change that manner is still an order to NSP that it change how it delivers electricity.”

While there is no dispute that damages sought by the Siewerts are based on their allegation that NSP “did not deliver electricity in the safest or most prudent way,” she wrote, the decision could “entangle the judiciary in the ratemaking process.”

“Our customers understand that we cannot comment on ongoing litigation,” said Xcel spokesman Thomas Hoen. “We will continue to provide our customers safe, reliable service at a reasonable cost.”

Siewert said the ruling will help other farmers in similar cases. At least two other cases are pending.

Only since last May has the Siewerts’ herd stabilized and shown no more effects from stray voltage, which seemingly strikes farms at random.

“It’s an isolated issue,” Siewert said. “We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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