Bill would zap stray electricity suits

By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Bill Lueders, Money and Politics Project director

Scott Lawrence, an attorney in eastern Wisconsin, thinks he knows why some state lawmakers want to make it harder to sue power companies over electrical problems that cause damage to farmers.

“They’re good Republicans marching to the orders of moneyed interests,” says Lawrence, of St. Nazianz in Manitowoc County.

The attorney, who has been suing over stray electricity (sometimes called stray voltage) since 1985, adds that these providers — a.k.a. “moneyed interests” — just seek freedom from accountability. “They don’t care how many farmers they drive out of business.”

Chris LaRowe, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Public Service Corp., a Green Bay-based electric and natural gas utility, pokes a hole in Lawrence’s argument.

“It would be to our disadvantage to drive farmers out of business,” he says. “It’s not good for our customer base or our economy.”

Stray electricity, which leaks into the ground from farm wiring or power lines, can harm the health of dairy cows, decreasing milk production, and causing trauma for farmers.

“There are thousands of farmers in Wisconsin that are affected,” says Platteville attorney Chris Stombaugh, president-elect of the Wisconsin Association for Justice, representing trial attorneys. Stray electricity lawsuits, though not common, have sometimes drawn multi-million-dollar verdicts.

A bill introduced by state Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, and Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, would bar lawsuits over stray electricity against providers that are “in compliance with all applicable engineering and safety standards.” Liability remains for “reckless, wanton or willful acts or omissions or intentional misconduct.”

The bill, which has awaiting the assignment of a number, has 16 cosponsors, all Republican.

Honadel says the bill will protect electric ratepayers by preventing “frivolous lawsuits.” Adds LaRowe, whose utility supports the bill, “If we’re playing by the rules, then I don’t think we should be penalized.”

But Lawrence says farmers often suffer losses — and are awarded damages by juries — over electrical woes that do not involve rule violations. He took part in a case, decided by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2003, specifically upholding the ability of farmers to sue even though applicable standards were met.

Lawrence, who thinks the bill may face opposition from Republican lawmakers in rural districts, scoffs at the suggestion that farmers are filing frivolous suits.

“If you can find me a dairy farmer who’s a fast-buck artist who wants to spend his time in court, I would like to meet the guy,” he says. “They don’t wind up in my office until they get no satisfaction from the utility.”

He and Stombaugh, who also has brought stray electricity lawsuits, say only the most serious cases end up in court. But they warn that, without the threat of lawsuits, providers will have no incentive to correct problems.

LaRowe and Brian Elwood, a spokesman for Xcel Energy, which also supports the bill, say their utilities have invested heavily in programs to improve electrical wiring on farms, to reduce the danger of stray electricity.

Both utilities boast contingents of nine registered lobbyists. Back in 2007-08, LaRowe’s utility reported devoting 223 lobbying hours to proposed legislation regarding stray electricity, more than on any other issue. The bill was never introduced.

The current bill, which Stombaugh calls “absolutely special interest legislation,” is similar to a liability shield proposed in 2001 by then-Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican. But the blowback from farmers and farm advocates was so strong he backed down.

“I’ve listened to your concerns and I agree with your position,” McCallum told farmers at the time. As for his withdrawn proposal, “I’m not going to defend it.”

But this session represents a fresh opportunity. Concedes Paul Zimmerman, executive director of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, which opposes the bill, “There’s certainly the possibility that it will pass.”

Honadel expects the bill will be taken up this fall. “I’m sure it’s going to wake a few people up,” he says. ‘“We’ll see how it goes.”

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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4 Responses to “Bill would zap stray electricity suits”

  1. Greg Cook says:

    I have represented insurance companies and other businesses over the years, and was fortunate to help out some farmers in Marathon, Clark, Fond du Lac, and Waupaca counties regarding stray voltage litigation. The comments posted to this site come from people who I fear are woefully uninformed. First of all, dairy cows are 200 times more susceptible to electric current. We know that utilities use the earth to ground their systems which means that not all of the electrical power generated by them does stays on the wire. Most people do not realize this and would think differently if they knew the facts. Knee jerk responses about lawyers making claims is ridiculous. No lawyer has the time to bring meritless ligitation, at least I don’t.

  2. Pat says:

    Knew someone who did stray voltage investigations on farms. He also used to have a dairy farm, so he was familiar with that aspect. He was an honest man so I trusted what he said. He said almost all the problems on farms were due to farmers who had done their own wiring and didn’t know what they were doing. One of them had a bare wire running over a metal stanchion and was upset that his cows were getting shocked and that their milk production had gone down. He blamed the power company. Another claimed stray voltage killed two of his dogs, which was ridiculous because the charge was almost non-existent and was not the fault of the power company. By the way, I’m not a Republican, and am not in favor of what they’re doing here in WI, but this sounds like a reasonable bill.

  3. Steve Yorlinski says:

    It kills me that one “special interest” slams another “special interest. You pick your poison…trial attorneys (ambulance chasers) or utilities. Sheesh, why don’t we throw in used car dealers and Congress?
    Some features of electrical safety are so fundamental they have been part of the National Electric Code (NEC) since it’s beginning. These include requirements for suitable insulation for conductors; overcurrent protection for circuits; and grounding of electrical systems and equipment for safety. The grounding of equipment and enclosures, as well as the grounding of one conductor of an electrical power and light system, has been practiced since the use of electricity began.

    For protection of persons and equipment, the neutral conductor of electrical distribution systems is connected directly with the earth, a procedure known as grounding. In any closed loop electrical system, the laws of physics dictate absolutely that current will flow when a source voltage is present. If this were not true, we could not predict and design the complex electrical systems that do our bidding so well in this heavily industrialized society.

    Because our electrical system is grounded there will always be stray current but it shouldn’t meet the definition of objectionable or be considered harmful unless it rises above a level that is considered safe.

    I’m hard pressed to believe cows are being “zapped” by any stray current unless something is faulty with the farm or utility equipment. Any farmer that claims a small amount of current is hurting cows is fooling themselves and being taken advantage of by lawyers looking to make a buck.

    More concerning is that the same individuals are now trying to kill renewables claiming wind farms are compounding the problem. This doesn’t make sense because a wind turbine isn’t connected to the same distribution system that feeds farms even ones that are in close proximity to a turbine.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] The attorney, who has been suing over stray electricity (sometimes called stray voltage) since 1985, adds that these providers — a.k.a. “moneyed interests” — just seek freedom from accountability. “They don’t care how many farmers they drive out of business.” Read more… [...]


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