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Solar Farm Trial Victors Aim To Close Exits For $135M Liability

By Butler Prather LLP on May 9, 2023

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Law360 (May 3, 2023, 7:33 PM EDT) — A Georgia couple who won $135.5 million at trial against the owner and developers of a neighboring solar farm powering a Facebook data center have asked a Georgia federal judge to prevent the companies from trying to derail the judgment by entering liability findings against them.

Shaun and Amie Harris and their company H&L Farms LLC said in a notice Tuesday that Tennessee-based Lumpkin Solar Farm owner Silicon Ranch Corp. should be liable for contractor Infrastructure and Energy Alternatives Inc. and its subsidiary IEA Constructors LLC after a jury blamed the companies for polluting a fishing lake on their property.

The Harrises also asked U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land to further find Indiana-based IEA responsible for its subsidiary’s liability. The couple said they will reconsider the need for IEA’s liability to be imputed to Silicon Ranch if Judge Land grants that directed verdict.

“IEA Inc. has ample assets to satisfy the judgment,” the Harrises said. “It is also plaintiffs’ understanding that SRC claims IEA Inc. has assumed SRC’s liability by indemnity agreement.”

Approving the directed verdict request should eliminate any incentive for the IEA subsidiary to attempt to derail an appeal in the case and halt enforcement of an injunction by filing a bankruptcy petition, the Harrises said.

A Columbus, Georgia, jury awarded the Harrises $10.5 million in compensatory damages and $125 million in punitive damages Friday, following two weeks of trial. The jurors found Silicon Ranch 30% at fault, IEA 40% responsible, and its subsidiary 30% to blame for poor site management and inadequate erosion controls that heavily damaged the Harrises’ property with sediment-laden runoff.

Silicon Ranch affiliate SR Lumpkin LLC and Minnesota-based development planner Westwood Professional Services Inc. were also targeted in the case, but the jury didn’t find them responsible for any damage to the Harrises’ property.

The jurors found that Silicon Ranch and the IEA entities created, contributed to, or maintained a nuisance that caused injury to the Harrises, and that the companies trespassed on the couple’s property and committed negligence. The IEA entities’ negligence caused a violation of Silicon Ranch’s permit for the solar power operation, the jurors found.

The jury awarded Shaun and Amie Harris each $4.5 million for the loss of the use and enjoyment of their property. It also awarded their company $1.5 million for repair costs.

The jurors also hit Silicon Ranch with $25 million in punitive damages, and they slapped each IEA entity with $50 million in punitive damages for intentionally harming the Harrises.

Counsel for the plaintiffs said in a Saturday statement that Silicon Ranch and the IEA entities cleared and “mass graded” about 1,000 acres without first installing adequate erosion and sediment control measures. That caused the Lumpkin Solar Farm’s pollution to inundate the Harrises’ downstream wetlands with silt and turn a 21-acre “trophy fishing lake” on the couple’s property into a “mud hole,” they said.

The Harrises’ property, formerly known as the Kawikee Refuge fishing and hunting preserve, and the neighboring Lumpkin Solar Farm site were previously owned by former Georgia law partners James E. “Jim” Butler Jr. of Butler Prather LLP, Joel O. Wooten Jr. of Peak Wooten McDaniel & Colwell LLP and sole practitioner George W. Fryhofer III, case records show. Butler was one of the Harrises’ attorneys in the case.

Before the couple bought their 1,630-acre property in March 2021, Silicon Ranch promised that the solar power operation would not impact it, the couple’s counsel said in the statement.

“There was expert testimony that SRC and IEA in fact knew what the results of their conduct would be, that the fishery was dead, and that the lake can never be remediated unless and until the pollution by SRC and IEA is stopped,” they continued.

Daniel E. Philyaw of Butler Prather, another attorney for the Harrises, also blasted Silicon Ranch and IEA in the statement for adopting a litigation strategy he characterized as blaming everyone else and denying responsibility in the case.

“They blamed Westwood, they blamed Shaun and Amie, they blamed too much rain, and they blamed ‘erodible soils,'” Philyaw said.

But “meanness is not neighborly,” and “it is a terrible litigation and trial strategy,” Butler said in the statement.

The presidents of Silicon Ranch and IEA’s subsidiary admitted liability on the witness stand during trial, and Judge Land signaled at the conclusion of evidence that he would grant an injunction to stop sediment from escaping the Lumpkin Solar Farm, according to the statement.

Lumpkin Solar Farm, a 100-megawatt operation in Georgia’s Stewart County, was developed to provide solar power to the Walton Electric Membership Corp. as part of its agreement to supply renewable energy for Facebook’s data center in Georgia’s Newton County, case records show.

Just before trial began, Judge Land denied Silicon Ranch and the IEA entities’ effort to exclude a negligence claim. The judge had rejected in January the parties’ competing motions for summary judgment.

An attorney for Westwood told Law360 on Wednesday that Judge Land and the jury were thoughtful and attentive throughout the trial, and that Westwood is grateful the jury cleared it of any liability.

“This was a long, technical trial for all parties involved,” Melissa L. Bailey of Copeland Stair Valz & Lovell LLP said. “Westwood is appreciative of the court and jury’s work that resulted in a defense verdict on all claims against it.”

An attorney for Silicon Ranch told Law360 in a written statement Wednesday that the company relied on IEA to perform its solar farm work according to Georgia law and industry best-management practices.

“As the long-term owner of this facility, Silicon Ranch remains committed to the continued success of Stewart County and the surrounding region,” Alycen A. Moss of Cozen O’Connor said. “While we sincerely regret the unintentional damage to our neighbor’s property, Silicon Ranch does not believe the verdict in this trial is supported by the facts in this case. We plan to appeal.”

“These are important legal issues that we will address with the court at the proper time, and we look forward to the opportunity to do so,” IEA said in a statement.

The Harrises and their company are represented by James E. “Jim” Butler Jr., Daniel E. Philyaw and Caroline W. Schley of Butler Prather LLP and C. Cooper Knowles of the Law Office of C. Cooper Knowles LLC.

Silicon Ranch and its affiliate are represented by Alycen A. Moss and Danielle C. Le Jeune of Cozen O’Connor.

IEA and its subsidiary are represented by Charles E. Rogers, Harry Z. Rippeon III, Steven J. Stuart, Sarah K. Carpenter, Jeanne M. Harrison and Brent J. Beaver of Smith Currie & Hancock LLP.

Westwood is represented by Kent T. Stair, Melissa L. Bailey and Corey R. Mendel of Copeland Stair Valz & Lovell LLP.

The case is H&L Farms LLC et al. v. Silicon Ranch Corp. et al., case number 4:21-cv-00134, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

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