Pine River dairy farmers awarded $6.3 million in lawsuit against power cooperative

Crow Wing Power of Brainerd was negligent in its response to a rural Pine River farm family's concerns about stray voltage on their property, a Cass County jury ruled Friday.

Crow Wing Power of Brainerd was negligent in its response to a rural Pine River farm family's concerns about stray voltage on their property, a Cass County jury ruled Friday.

The jury awarded Randy and Peggy Norman $4.8 million in economic loss damages and $1.5 million in nuisance damages for a total of $6.3 million, the largest amount ever awarded in a stray voltage case in state history, according to the Normans' attorneys.

For nearly 20 years, the Normans claimed to have experienced mysterious health issues with their dairy herd that eventually led them to shutter their business in 2012.

"They had unexplained metabolic diseases, high death loss, erratic milk production and great difficulty getting their cattle bred," said Will Mahler, one of the Normans' attorneys.

Several veterinarians visited the farm but could never identify the cause, Mahler said. In 2011, Randy Norman agreed to have his farm privately tested for stray voltage and the tests came back positive.


According to Mahler, the Normans approached Crow Wing Power with their concerns and asked them to make corrections to their lines. The company responded by making partial upgrades, he said, but failed to replace a buried line designed to carry current back to the substation. It was this line that was working improperly, according to the Normans' tests, carrying current through the ground and into the grounding system of their farm.

Stray voltage has for some time been a concern of dairy farmers. Last year, there were at least six active lawsuits by Minnesota farmers against utilities companies seeking damages from stray voltage, according to a Star Tribune story. The electric current can course through the metal on a dairy farm, including through water troughs. This can lead to cows not drinking enough water, not eating enough food and a reduction in milk production as a result, according to a 2009 publication produced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Stray voltage can also cause the animals to produce a stress hormone, decreasing the ability to fight infection.

Mahler estimates the Normans have lost hundreds of cows over the years to metabolic and opportunistic diseases and links these losses to the voltage. He said the losses led to "significant emotional issues" and "family strife."

Crow Wing Power denied the existence of any stray voltage on the property in question and said they did everything they could for the family despite no evidence that they were at fault for the losses.

"We're very disappointed with the outcome," said Char Kinzer, public relations manager for the electricity cooperative. "We did everything necessary to prove that we had no wiring issues and there was no stray voltage on the property."

According to Kinzer, the company did their own testing and found no evidence of stray voltage. Despite the negative tests, the company went ahead with upgrades to lines on the property.

"We spent an amazing amount of time and labor with experts and everything over a two-year period to test the distribution lines and equipment, and we found nothing," Kinzer said. "We just did upgrades to please him. We didn't have stray voltage."

The company did not improve a line just outside of the Normans' property, as the couple had requested, because of the lack of evidence needed to justify the upgrade, she said. Kinzer said the testing the Normans allowed on their property was done with what she characterized as "unethical equipment" that did not meet United States Department of Agriculture standards, unlike the equipment the company used.


"The real problem is, Minnesota does not have legislation and standards in place for wiring guidelines," Kinzer said. "That would limit stray voltage 'headhunters' from preying on vulnerable dairy farms, and that's what's happening all over Minnesota right now."

Kinzer said she believes there are private individuals who seek out dairy farms and confirm positive results to gain financially from lawsuits. If legislation were enacted in the state to outline wiring and testing regulations, it could eliminate a lot of the uncertainty, she said.

"These are very complex cases, and a lot of detailed technical information," Kinzer said. "I think these cases are very difficult for a jury. ... When you see a dairy farmer that failed, lost his farm, so to speak, I understand it. But it's unfortunate."

At this time, Crow Wing Power has taken no further action in the case, but Kinzer said the cooperative's lawyers are looking at their options for appeal.

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