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WSHB Trial Alert: Jury Delivers Defense Verdict; Rejects $8.9 Million Demand

June 26, 2014

(Ventura, California).   A Ventura County jury returned a defense verdict in a nuisance and trespass case with multiple theories of liability which were fueling a whopping $8.9 million settlement demand.  WSHB trial lawyers Kevin Smith and Jason Gless reported the jury took little time to return the defense award in this three week trial.

The Plaintiffs in this action were the owners and farmers of an 82 acre lemon orchard in Santa Paula, California.  The defendant, Farmers Irrigation, is a non-profit corporation that has existed since 1917 and serves the local farmers with irrigation water.  The Plaintiffs purchased the property used for the orchard in 1997, and shortly thereafter planted the lemon orchard.  The Plaintiffs alleged that the soil at the lemon orchard was often saturated from excess water entering the property, and as a result, the lemon trees became stressed, causing them to produce either sub-standard fruit or die.  Plaintiffs claim that during the time period in question, they replaced over 5,000 lemon trees on the property, and lost significant resulting from reduced harvests.  Plaintiffs asserted that for many years they were aware of the saturated soil, but despite significant efforts to locate its source, Plaintiffs could not locate it until 2011 when they discovered an abandoned pipeline just north of their property.  Plaintiffs asserted that the abandoned pipeline belonged to Farmers Irrigation and that Farmers Irrigation was allowing water to escape from a neighboring weir box (water control device) and into the abandoned pipeline.  Plaintiffs asserted they disconnected and plugged the abandoned pipeline; after doing so, theyasserted their trees began to flush with growth.

By way of their Complaint, Plaintiffs sought damages in the form of lost income due to low fruit harvest, emotional distress and the replacement value of 5,020 trees, including treble damages for each tree pursuant to Civil Code Section 3346 and attorneys’ fees under C.C.P. Section 1021.9.  The Plaintiffs’ Complaint sought damages under the following seven causes of action:  Negligence, Negligence per se, Private Nuisance, Private Nuisance per se, Public Nuisance per se, Trespass and Trespass to Trees.  Prior to reaching the jury, the per se causes of action were dismissed by way of motion for non-suit.

Plaintiffs’ initial demand was $4.9 million.  However, as the case progressed, Plaintiffs’ damages continued and they raised their demand to $8.9 million.

The defense recognized Plaintiffs had a significant problem with oversaturation of their soil, but presented evidence that the problem was not the result of any wrongdoing of Farmers Irrigation.  Rather, the property in question had a perched water table several feet below ground, and as a result of Plaintiffs’ poor farming management and lack of maintenance to a tile drain system the water table rose and saturated the soil beneath the orchard.

Throughout the course of the litigation, and even during trial, Plaintiffs continued to change their theories of liability as the defense continued to point out the holes in their case.  After three weeks in trial, the jury took less than three hours to render a  defense verdict on the four remaining causes of action.

 

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