by SUSAN MANN
Former dairy farmers Ron and Helen Cowan and their daughter, Shannon, are considering appealing a court decision dismissing claims stray voltage in their barn was caused by Hydro One’s negligence and that damaged their business.
Their lawyer, John P. Lundrigan, says they’re currently reviewing the decision and analyzing possible grounds for appeal. They’ll be deciding next week whether to launch the appeal or not.
Ron and Helen began dairy farming in 1992 near the village of Earlton. They were successful at first but the herd became plagued by poor milk quality and low production after 1997. They took various steps to enhance their herd health with their veterinarian along with their breeding processes and feed quality. By 2002, they had no choice but to shut down the business and sell the herd and quota. The couple said the decline in their herd’s milk production and quality was due to the presence of tingle voltage caused by the Hydro One system.
The case was heard in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in the City of Temiskaming Shores in May and November 2010. In his decision Justice Robbie Gordon said the Cowans were unable to prove that the damages they suffered, calculated to be more than $800,000, were caused by Hydro One.
Gordon accepted that voltage levels recorded in the barn by various experts could over the long-term lead to health and production problems for dairy cows. But Hydro One proved on the balance of probabilities that inadequate farm labour likely contributed to the dairy herd’s production problems. Other contributing factors couldn’t be identified because the Cowans didn’t keep adequate records, it says in the written decision.
The Cowans’ claim for breach of contract also failed because they couldn’t prove the damages they suffered were due to Hydro One’s alleged negligence.
But Gordon did find there were some instances where Hydro One could have done things differently. For example, Hydro One’s practice of notifying farmers about the risks of tingle voltage was inadequate. It wasn’t enough for the company to occasionally stuff information pamphlets into customers’ bills. Hydro One should have directly contacted customers it knew to be potentially vulnerable to advise them of increased risk.
Nancy Shaddick, spokesperson for Hydro One, says is they’re considering the statement about pamphlets in the judge’s decision. But Shaddick declined to answer questions about what Hydro One was considering regarding the pamphlets and just said she “can’t provide any additional comment at this time.”
Helen Cowan says they wondered before a cow named Sprite was found dead in her stall in 2000 what was happening on their farm. Their vet did a post mortem and thought perhaps the cow had been electrocuted given that she appeared to simply drop and has no external signs of trauma.
Tingle or stray voltage is the difference in voltage potential between two points that a farm animal might contact at the same time. It’s only when the animal touches the two objects, each with a different voltage potential, that its body completes an electrical circuit and electricity can flow from one object through the animal to the other object. If the voltage between the two points is high enough, the animal may feel a tingling sensation.
Cowan says sometimes she could feel a shock when she touched the cows’ water bowls.
The family now has meat goats in the barn. Cowan says she was sitting in a maternity pen trying to get kids to suck from a nanny when she leaned up against a metal gate and was shocked so badly “it would just about knock you over.”
The stray voltage also adversely affects the goats, she explains.
Cowan claims there is a stray voltage problem in their area because voltage was even found in the barn when the farm was disconnected temporarily from the grid during testing. Other farmers in their area have also said they have stray voltage problems, she notes. BF