Making It Easier to Sue Over Wind Turbines

October 26, 2013

Earlier this year Wisconsin Senator Frank Lasee introduced a bill that seems to invite property owners to sue owners of wind energy facilities.  2013 Senate Bill 167 requires a court, in an action for damages caused by a wind energy system, to “grant a prevailing plaintiff …actual damages for physical and emotional harm suffered by the plaintiff, including for medical expenses, pain, and suffering” caused by lost value of real estate, compensation “for moving to another residence to escape the effects of the wind energy system,” lost profits, and costs, disbursements and attorney’s fees.   In addition, for a residence within 1.5 miles of a wind energy system, it is not a defense to claim that the public service commission granted a CPCN for the wind energy system under Wis. Stat. § 196.491(3) or that an application for the wind energy system was approved under Wis. Stat. § 66.0401 (4).

This proposed legislation is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is extremely unusual to allow actual costs and attorney’s fees for any cause of action.   And whether physical or emotional harm can be attributed to living in the vicinity of wind turbines is an intensely debated issue.  Wind energy proponents claim there is no reliable, scientific proof the wind turbines cause human health problems.  Even the Sierra Club has published “The Real Truth About Wind Energy.”

But there are those who have come to an opposite conclusion.  And the anecdotal evidence is compelling.  The Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Labor held a public hearing on the bill on November 20, 2013.  Many people who live in the vicinity of wind turbines testified to the significant, debilitating injuries they have endured that they attribute to the presence of the turbines.  There is little doubt but that they are convinced about the source of their symptoms.

At the same hearing surprisingly few industry advocates testified.  Those who did testify claimed the bill would cause so much uncertainty and concern for potential legal liability that nobody will want to invest in new wind energy in Wisconsin.  There is little doubt about that.  Joe Sullivan of Wind on the Wires  said that the law runs counter to the agenda of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature on the topic of tort reform.  “When I talked to my members, they look at this and say in general they like the direction that Wisconsin is going in terms of tort reform.”  But he said this would be the industry’s exemption from tort reform. “That’s not a message we should be sending to major national and international companies.”

Senator Lasee, in a statement made when introducing the bill, said “I introduced the bill to make sure the rights of my neighbors are protected.  I believe these people have health problems because of the turbines and I’m tired of the PSC dragging their feet. This is a public health issue for all of Wisconsin and it’s time to get answers.”

It will be interesting to follow this bill.  The Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Labor, as a group, were obviously not great fans of wind energy.  Some seemed concerned about the likelihood of litigation, and they were clearly concerned about the testimony of those claiming personal injury from wind turbines.