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Farmers' "stray voltage" case dismissed as court rejects their experts' testimony

In Schaendorf v. Consumers Energy, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that it is common knowledge and undisputed by either party that stray voltage in a barn can and will decrease milk production.  Nevertheless, it upheld the dismissal of the Plaintiff's economic damage claim, citing a lack of scientific foundation for the farmers' three experts' testimony.

Part of the last two decades of tort "reform" has been a tightening of the admissibility standards for opinion testimony.  The Federal Courts adopted the so-called "Daubert" standard  in 1993, and the Michigan Courts soon followed suit.  This threshold requirement for the admission of "causation" testimony has historically been modulated by the Allison v. Chandler axiom that a victim who has proved an injury will not be punished for his inability to quanitify what may be "unknow-able":  that is, some of the doubt inherent in valuing damages will be allowed to rest on the shoulders of the wrongdoer.

In the Schaendorf case, the Court of Appeals upheld the Allegan County judge's dismissal of the farmers' negligence case , and the rejection of the Schaendorf's expert testimony, (as "within the range of principled outcomes") finding that the farmers had not adequately documented their claim that Consumers Power's stray voltage had reduced the herd's production.  The Court upheld this decision, even though the Schaendorfs offered the testimony of two engineers, a veterinarian, Mr. Schaendorf and his herdsman in support of their claim.  The latter two gentlemen documented animal behavior within the herd that is commonly associated with the presence of stray electrical voltage.

At some point, demanding unimpeachable scientific proof of causation merely becomes an unarticulated excuse for providing immunity to wrongdoers.  We don't advocate sloppy evidence or "voodoo science," however, when circumstantial and knowledgeable opinion evidence builds high enough, the ultimate decision on liability should be left to the jury, and victims should not be held to a threshold of proof so high that it is unattainable in the real world.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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