Judge orders new Cinergy trial

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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A federal judge in Indianapolis has ordered a new trial for Cinergy Corp because the energy company now owned by Duke Energy committed misconduct earlier this year and tainted the liability phase of the litigation.

U.S. District Judge Larry McKinney issued a 29-page decision in U.S., et al. v. Cinergy Corp, et al., 1:99-cv-1693, on Thursday, unsealing it and making the ruling public Dec. 22.

"In summary, the Court concludes that Cinergy's misrepresentations about payment of one of its fact witnesses ... amounts to misconduct," Judge McKinney wrote. "Because of such misconduct, the liability trial in this matter was tainted and Plaintiffs' request for a new trial on liability is granted."

This second-phase litigation stems from a two-week federal trial in the spring, the nation's first to go before a jury on the issue of whether slight modifications at coal-fired power plants triggered the need for new pollution control equipment at the facilities.

A jury found the Wabash Power plant in Terre Haute had violated the U.S. Clean Air Act when the company improved the facility but didn't install modern pollution controls, as required by law. The jury found that "a reasonable power plant operator" would not have expected the improvements to cause additional sulfur dioxide pollution and a need for extra controls.

That unanimous decision was part of a larger ruling involving six plants, including two others in Indiana. The company won decisions on 10 of 14 projects at the those plants, and the four it lost involved work at plants in Terre Haute between 1989 and 1992.

In the remedy phase that is central to this court decision, the issue became how Cinergy represented one of its key witnesses during discovery and at trial. One of Cinergy's central defense themes was on the experts from both sides - the plaintiffs' "hired experts" versus the defense "engineer" witnesses, who had differing views on what kind of repair and modernization projects may have been happening at the power plants.

Judge McKinney found that Cinergy didn't disclose that it had a consulting agreement with a witness and misrepresented that person's relationship with the company - whether he was a retired, unpaid former employee or a paid consultant. Plaintiffs argued that it relied on that misrepresentation as a key strategy, and that may have influenced the liability trial.

Ultimately, Judge McKinney wrote that it's difficult to determine the extent of the unfairness in the process.

A bench trial is set for Feb. 2, 2009.

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