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Vogel v. Grant-Lafayette Electric Cooperative

    Brief Fact Summary. The Vogels (Plaintiffs) sued Defendant on two different theories of nuisance for stray voltage from Grant-Lafayette Electric Cooperative’s (Defendant’s) electrical service.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A private nuisance is a non-trespassory invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of the land. The common law doctrine of private nuisance is both “broad” to meet the wide variety of possible invasions, and “flexible” to adapt to changing social values and conditions.

    Facts. The Plaintiffs were dairy farmers and members of Defendant, a cooperative association that distributed electricity to its members. Shortly after building a new milking facility in 1970, Plaintiffs noticed problems with their herd. They discovered that the problems were associated with stray voltage. In 1986, Defendant responded to Plaintiff’s concerns about stray voltage and built an isolator. The behavior of the herd began to improve immediately. In 1992, Plaintiffs filed suit against Defendant for negligence and nuisance. Defendant denied these allegations and alleged that Plaintiffs were contributorily negligent in the design, maintenance, and operation of their electrical equipment. The jury found that Defendant was negligent and that it had created a nuisance. It awarded Plaintiffs $240,000.00 in economic damages and $60,000.00 in annoyance and inconvenience damages. A verdict for $200,000.00 was entered and Defendant appealed. The court of appeals held that the trial court erred in submitting the nuisance claim to the jury.

    Issue. There are two issues in this case:
    * Could Defendant’s stray voltage constitute a private nuisance?
    * Does Defendant’s stray voltage constitute an intentional invasion nuisance?

    Held. Yes, Defendant’s stray voltage could constitute a private nuisance. No, Defendant’s stray voltage does not constitute an intentional invasion nuisance.
    * A private nuisance is a non-trespassory invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of the land. Defendant argues that the definition of a private nuisance necessarily involves a unilateral encroachment. According to Defendant, the Plaintiffs’ act of requesting electrical service and cooperating in the receipt of electricity by connecting its system to Defendant’s distribution system negates the concept of unilateral invasion and thus defeats a claim for nuisance. The court disagrees. Plaintiffs’ request for electric service itself does not negate the invasion element of nuisance. Plaintiffs requested electrical service, but they did not request excessive stray voltage to flow though their farm.
    * The common law doctrine of private nuisance is both “broad” to meet the wide variety of possible invasions, and “flexible” to adapt to changing social values and conditions. Nuisance law is applicable to stray voltage claims because excessive levels of stray voltage may invade a person’s private use and enjoyment of land.
    * Plaintiffs assert that although Defendant may not have intended to cause harm, the invasion is intentional because Defendant knew that the stray voltage was substantially certain to result from its conduct. The court disagreed, the mere fact that the systems were interconnected does not create an intentional invasion. It is the unreasonable level of stray voltage that may give rise to liability. Plaintiffs fail to identify any evidence, which would indicate that the Defendant had knowledge that the system was straying unreasonably high levels of voltage onto the Plaintiffs’ farm. Plaintiffs also argue that Defendant’s conduct constitutes an intentional invasion because it was a continuing invasion of which they had knowledge. However, as soon at Defendant became aware of the stray voltage, it immediately responded and worked to alleviate the problem. It installed an isolator on the system, which helped immediately.

    Discussion. For Plaintiffs to recover under a claim for intentional nuisance, Defendant must have intended to cause the harm to the herd. Defendant is not liable for a continuing trespass either because as soon as Defendant was aware of the stray voltage, it made immediate steps to fix it. Defendant is liable for private nuisance in providing undesirable and harmful stray electric along with the requested electricity. Notice in the private nuisance analysis, it does not matter whether or not Defendant knew or should have know that its stray electricity caused Plaintiff harm. Private nuisance is a strict liability tort.


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