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The Wisconsin Supreme Court has become the second state high court to uphold a “nontraditional stray voltage” jury award, ruling that a power company breached its duty to control it. Farmers across the country have been filing suit over so-called stray voltage for years, claiming that electrical discharges adversely affect the health of their dairy herds. Dairy cows often live in wet, salt-laden, highly conductive environments, surrounded by electrical equipment. A cow that gets a weak shock when drinking from its metal cup will likely drink less and thus produce less milk. There are two types of stray voltage, according to the Wisconsin Supreme Court: traditional and nontraditional. Hoffmann v. Wisconsin Electric Power Co., 2003 Wis. 64. Traditional stray voltage is caused by poor grounding of a utility’s electrical distribution system or a farmer’s own power supply, so that electric current flows onto grounded objects, such as metal drinking vessels and feeders. Nontraditional stray voltage — which is much more controversial, and the type involved in the Wisconsin case — does not shock at the same levels. Nontraditional stray voltage, also called “earth current,” is caused by multiple grounding of any electrical distribution system. Experts disagree about how (and if) it causes injury. The successful Wisconsin suit now joins a short but fast-growing line of plaintiffs’ verdicts that exclusively involve earth current. In addition to Wisconsin, stray-voltage suits have been filed in several states, including Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota. Without attempting to distinguish between types of current, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a $700,000 stray-voltage award in 2002. But its discussion of the case would fit the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s definition of nontraditional stray voltage. Martins v. Interstate Power Co., 652 N.W.2d 657. LISTLESS AND LAME In 1977, Allan and Beverly Hoffmann began operating a New London, Wis., dairy farm. That same year, the utility company laid an underground electrical distribution cable along a road adjacent to the Hoffmanns’ property. Things turned sour in the late 1980s when the cows began to behave erratically. Listless and lame, they kicked at milkers and had high calf-mortality rates, said Lynn Laufenberg of Milwaukee’s Laufenberg & Hoefle, who represented the Hoffmanns with co-counsel. Though the Hoffmanns employed veterinarians, built a free-stall barn and hired a nutritionist, milk production plummeted. The veterinarian suggested the cause might be electrical. The Hoffmanns made electrical modifications between 1988 to 1999 to dissipate traditional stray voltage, and lastly buried a ring of copper wire around their barn to divert stray ground current. Calf mortality lessened, but not much else changed, Laufenberg said. The utility’s test for traditional stray voltage showed it was within the Public Service Commission’s maximum cow-contact standards, the court noted. The Hoffmanns alleged, though, that when the utility company inspected its cable, it found that it had deteriorated at a greater rate than expected, an allegation the utility still denies. The company fixed a bad splice that it had found, but left the cable in place, offering to test it periodically. The Hoffmanns sued the utility under theories of negligence and nuisance. After a month-long trial that became a battle of experts, the jury found that the utility’s deteriorated electrical cable caused ground current that was a cause of damage to the herd. The Hoffmanns were awarded $1.2 million. Though payment of the judgment was not stayed by appeal, it didn’t save the land, which was sold to pay farm debt, said Laufenberg. Power companies “try to make it as expensive as possible for plaintiffs to succeed,” Laufenberg charged, estimating that the cost for plaintiff’s experts exceeded $150,000. “It’s the stray-voltage shuffle: it’s not coming from us; it’s coming from you,” Laufenberg asserted. “It’s the way you feed, bed, raise your calves, how you treat your cows. “The last thing they want to do is acknowledge that there is nontraditional stray voltage,” Laufenberg said. “It would require them to rewire rural Wisconsin so that the earth is not used as a pathway for return current.” And that’s just what the utility’s appellate co-counsel, Tom Armstrong of Milwaukee’s Quarles & Brady, fears. “The court’s decision undermines the public service commission’s findings and its ability to establish uniform standards,” he said. “There is no method to test what the level of ground current is that would affect a dairy cow, so you’re left with no standards.” Chuck DeNardo, principal engineer for the utility company, was clearly frustrated by the verdict. The Hoffmanns “implied that the effects came from earth currents coming up from the cable, but they showed us no measurements of exposure,” he said.

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