Supreme Court hands dairy farmers a win over stray voltage

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court ruled today that two Wabasha County farmers can seek money from an electric utility, whose stray voltage, they say, has caused their cows to give out less milk (see opinion). The stray voltage is also believed to have killed 80 dairy cows.

In upholding a lower court’s ruling, the Supreme Court said Greg and Harlan Siewert of Zumbro Falls are free to seek damages from Northern States Power Company, the parent of Xcel Energy. When the two moved to their new farm in 1989, they noticed the milk production decreased from their 150-200 cows. Experts said it was because electrical current returned to the ground through the cows.

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

The court rejected the utility’s claim that any damages would impact electricity rates in violation of state law, especially if it had to redesign its electrical distribution system.

In her dissent, Chief Justice Lori Gildea wrote, “the judiciary is not in the position to order NSP to adopt one electrical distribution system over another without potentially undermining the nuanced balancing and determinations made by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission…”

She acknowledged, however, that “NSP did not deliver electricity in the safest or most prudent way.”

The effect of stray voltage on cows has been a controversy in Minnesota since farmers started raising the issue in the 1990s. About a half-dozen farmers have filed suit over the years against utility companies.