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Indianapolis lawyer wins $79M telecom verdict

February 11, 2015

An Indianapolis lawyer won a $79 million federal jury verdict for Missouri landowners who had not been compensated for fiber optic Internet cables a telecommunications company carried on power lines that crossed their property.

“I was pleased and a little surprised,” attorney Ron Waicukauski of Price Waicukauski & Riley LLC said of the jury’s verdict in Chase Barfield, et al. v. Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative, et al., 2:11-CV-4321.

Waicukauski has litigated similar cases around the country, including successful class actions against AT&T, Sprint, Qwest and others, but those cases settled. He said this is the first lawsuit he’s aware of in which a jury determined damages against a telecom company that failed to obtain legal authority from landowners to carry cables that connect users to the Internet.

“This is a victory for farm families of rural Missouri,” said Waicukauski, who was lead trial counsel in the case. “Property rights are a cornerstone of a free society, and Missouri law gives landowners strong protection when their property is used without authorization.”

The jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri in Jefferson City on Friday awarded property owners $79,014,140 – $1.88 per linear foot of cable Sho-Me used to carry its network over almost 800 miles via a parent utility’s electrical transmission lines. Damages cover a period of 10 years leading up to the judgment, but do not address future compensation.

About 3,500 property owners, mostly farmers, ranchers and small businesses, will share in the judgment. Awards will be apportioned based on the length of cable crossing each claimant’s land. Waicukauski said that for the average-sized parcel of 1,80 feet, the verdict means a recovery of $2,218 per year, or $22,184 for the 10 years of trespass that was at issue.

Waicukauski said the jury sided with the lesser of two expert valuations plaintiffs presented, rejecting defense valuations that the total value of claims was less than $100,000. Sho-Me was the last defendant in this case, and the judgment against the co-op was greater than awards against other co-defendants who previously settled, he said.

He said the jury also heard testimony that Sho-Me had received $242 million in revenue from its fiber optic network and a true benefit of more than $100 million after expenses. The jury also considered contracts other Internet service providers used to gain authorization in arriving at its verdict.

The plaintiffs also will seek attorney fees and costs as well as pre-judgment interest, Waicukauski said. He noted Sho-Me has indicated it intends to appeal the verdict.

Providers eager to establish Internet footprints sometimes piggy-backed on existing easements without seeking authorization from landowners, Waicukauski said. “It was a frequent practice in the 1980s and 1990s as telecommunications companies tried to be the first to get a fiber optic network established.”

He said the verdict “affirms the rule of law and the simple concept that no person or company is above the law. No one can take private property without consent or legal right, regardless of commercial benefit.”

Missouri counsel for the plaintiffs include Kathleen Kauffmann and Heidi Doerhoff Vollet. Sho-Me’s lead counsel were from the St. Louis firm Thompson Coburn LLP.

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