COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — A U.S. District Court jury on Friday awarded a Stewart County couple $135.5 million Friday afternoon for damage done to their property by a Tennessee solar company and its contractor, according to Columbus attorney James E. Butler of Butler Prather LLP.
The jury hit Silicon Ranch Corp. (SRC) and its contractor IEA Inc. for intentionally polluting property owned by Shaun and Amie Harris, the plaintiffs.
The case was tried in front of Judge Clay Land.
Silicon Ranch Corp. has developed more than 160 solar panel facilities across the country, many of them built by IEA. This case involved one in Stewart County, Ga., called “Lumpkin solar.” Silicon Ranch and IEA cleared and mass graded about 1,000 acres without first installing adequate erosion and sediment control measures.
“That was the main problem with the Lumpkin site,” Butler said in a news release announcing the verdict. “For two years SRC and IEA failed to stabilize and vegetate almost a thousand acres they had mass graded – which was breaking the law.”
The jury returned a compensatory damages verdict of $10.5 million. The trial went to a punitive phase where the jury considered an amount that would punish the companies for their actions.
In its second verdict the jury found that SRC and IEA, and an IEA subsidiary called “IEA Constructors, LLC”, acted with the specific intent to cause harm. The jury imposed $25 million in punitive damages against SRC, $50 million in punitive damages against IEA Inc., and $50 million against IEA’s wholly-owned subsidiary IEA Constructors, LLC, according to a news release from Butler Prather.
The engineering firm that designed the erosion and sediment control plan for SRC and IEA, Westwood Professional Services, Inc., was also a defendant. The jury released Westwood from any liability, according to Butler Prather.
“The SRC/IEA litigation and trial strategy was to blame everyone else and deny responsibility,” said plaintiffs’ counsel, Dan Philyaw. “They blamed Westwood, they blamed Shaun and Amie, they blamed too much rain, and they blamed ‘erodible soils.’”
Silicon Ranch released a statement Tuesday afternoon.
“Silicon Ranch hired Infrastructure and Energy Alternatives (IEA), a leading infrastructure construction company with renewable energy and specialty civil expertise, to design and construct the Lumpkin solar facility through its subsidiary IEA Constructors. IEA’s scope of work included the installation of solar modules and the full balance of system EPC construction, including all of the civil, mechanical, and electrical work,” the statement read. “We relied on our contractor to carry out this scope of work in compliance with applicable law and in keeping with industry best management practices, as specified by the appropriate regulatory bodies in the state of Georgia.”
The company said it remains committed to the Stewart County facility and will appeal.
“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,” the statement read. “We plan to appeal.”
Butler summed up the case this way: “Meanness is not neighborly, and it is a terrible litigation and trial strategy.”