The second time was a greater charm for a legal team led by an Indianapolis lawyer who won a $130 million jury verdict this week for Missouri property owners. The judgment in a class-action lawsuit against a telecommunications company is likely to be among the largest in the nation this year.
Indianapolis lawyer Ron Waicukauski of Price Waicukauski Joven & Catlin LLP served as lead plaintiffs’ counsel during the trial in federal court in Jefferson City, Missouri, that concluded Tuesday. The class prevailed on its claim that Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative trespassed for more than 12 years by running fiberoptic cable lines across nearly 800 miles of property without paying owners of 3,560 parcels of property. The jury award was nearly twice that of a prior jury verdict in the same case that was vacated on appeal.
Waicukauski said the jury on retrial returned the verdict that he and the legal team argued for based on similar fiberoptic easements and use rights around the country — compensatory damages of $129.2 million and punitive damages of $1.3 million. The compensatory damages reimburse thousands of property owners including farmers, ranchers, homeowners and small businesses, at a rate of $2.44 per foot for 796 miles of trespass over 12.6 years.
“This has been a hard-fought battle to defend landowners’ rights,” Waicukauski said in a statement. “The jury verdict’s precise calculation of the damages demonstrates the jury’s careful understanding of the facts, and is a victory for Missouri landowners.”
In an interview, Waicukauski credited the legal team that also included firm colleague Brad Catlin, and attorneys Kathleen Kauffman, F. Alexander O’Neill, and Heidi Doerhoff Vollet. Along with Price Waicukauski Joven & Catlin, other firms representing the property owners in the case were Cook Vetter Doerhoff & Landwehr of Jefferson City and Ackerson Kauffman Fex of Washington, D.C.
“We had some celebrations in Jefferson City before I left,” Waicukauski said. “This was really a team effort, and we had a really good team.”
“This verdict is a victory for the judicial system as well as the landowners,” said Kauffman, who led the liability and class certification briefing. “It 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.”
Waicukauski expects an appeal unless the matter is resolved by a settlement. He said there are no settlement discussions at the current time.
Attorneys for Sho-Me have petitioned the court for judgment as a matter of law and decertification of the class — matters that were not before the jury.
Two years ago, a jury hearing the same case awarded $79 million in damages on unjust enrichment. The award in 2015 was the ninth-largest jury verdict nationwide that year, according to the National Law Journal’s Big Money Wins compilation.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the $79 million judgement on appeal, finding no remedy in law for unjust enrichment damages. However, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s class certification, grant of summary judgment for unjust enrichment, and liability for trespass. The 8th Circuit remanded for this damages trial on the trespass judgment.
Waicukauski is becoming a regular on annual lists of America’s largest jury verdicts. He was lead counsel for a legal team that won a $31.3 million judgment against the Indiana Department of Child Services for the Finnegan family in northwest Indiana. A federal jury found DCS had falsified documents to wrongfully pursue neglect charges against a daughter who died as a result of a prescription error. A settlement was later reached for $25 million.
Waicukauski said the string of big recent jury verdicts is a credit to his experience in the courtroom, having argued in more than 80 jury trials. “That experience helps a lot,” he said. “We’ve gotten some good results, and I think it’s because we’ve gotten good cases where people deserve compensation and the jury realizes that.”
The case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri is Chase Barfield, et al. v. Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative, et al., 2:11-cv-4321NKL.