A seven-year court battle between Missouri landowners and a telecom company that strung fiber-optic cable across 796 miles of private property without permission or compensation has concluded with a $25 million settlement negotiated by a legal team led by an Indianapolis law firm.
Ron Waicukauski of Price Waicukauski Joven & Catlin, LLC, said in a press release that thousands of ranchers, farmers, homeowners and small businesspeople will benefit from the settlement with Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative and Sho-Me Technologies, LLC.
“This settlement represents a victory for property rights and provides a substantial measure of justice for thousands of people whose property has been used for telecommunications without permission to do so,” Waicukauski said. “It’s not as much justice as we and two juries would have liked but, all things considered, it’s a good result. It is telling that there were no objectors to the settlement.”
The settlement amount includes attorney fees and costs, which have not yet been presented to the court.
The settlement comes after two trials in the federal court for the Western District of Missouri. The first trial resulted in a $79 million jury verdict in 2015. That judgment was partially reversed by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded for a new trial, where a second jury last year awarded $130 million.
However, the district court shortly afterward vacated that judgment and ordered a third trial. The settlement agreement came just before the third trial was set to begin.
A message seeking comment was left Tuesday for a Sho-Me spokesman.
“All of us who were privileged to play a part in correcting this injustice and vindicating the property rights of Missouri landowners can only thank this country’s system of justice for giving us a chance to be a part of proving that everyone stands equal before the law,” said Brad Catlin of the Indianapolis firm. The plaintiffs’ legal team also included Kathleen Kauffman of Washington, D.C.; Cook, Vetter, Doerhoff & Landwehr P.C. in Jefferson City; and attorney Fred O’Neill of Thayer, Missouri.
In 2015, the same litigation team settled similar claims against an Oklahoma-based electric transmission cooperative and its technology subsidiary that had been operating in Missouri. Another suit alleging similar trespass by Central Electric Power Cooperative and its technology subsidiary is pending in the Circuit Court of Callaway County, Missouri.
Dwight Robertson of Miller County, Missouri, is a lead plaintiff in the $25 million corporate trespass settlement. As a class representative, he will receive $15,000 in addition to damages that will be awarded.
“I participated in this court case to help preserve property rights for myself and the other landowners,” Robertson said. “I want to thank the entire legal team that represented the landowners in this case. Their accurate presentation of the case was successful in helping all landowners preserve our property ownership rights.”
The case in the Western District of Missouri is Chase Barfield, et al. v. Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative, et al., 2:11-cv-4321.