Judge in muddy solar case asked to revisit cuts to $135 million award

Plaintiffs’ lawyers argue judge made ‘legal errors’ in slashing the damages awarded to $5 million

A federal judge reduced a jury’s $135 million award to a Georgia couple down to $5 million.The couple's property was damaged by muddy runoff from a solar project next door.The 1,630-acre property, downstream from the solar arrays, is managed as a wildlife and fishing refuge.A jury found Silicon Ranch, a solar power developer, and its contractor acted with “specific intent to cause harm” in constructing a 100-megawatt solar facility near Columbus.The judge, however, concluded the punitive damages awarded to the couple were excessive

Lawyers for a Georgia couple whose fishing lake was clogged by muddy runoff from a solar project have asked a federal judge to reconsider his decision to cut a jury’s $135 million award for damages down to just $5 million.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Clay D. Land of the Middle District of Georgia wrote that the jury’s award to the couple was excessive because it far surpassed the $3.3 million the couple paid for their property just two years prior. The judge gave the plaintiffs the option to either accept the reduced award or he would grant a new trial, solely on the damages.

But in a motion filed Tuesday, attorneys for the couple argued there were several “legal errors” in the judge’s order and asked him to reverse course.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs — Shaun and Amie Harris of Stewart County, near Columbus — wrote that the judge presumed that the jury did not understand the law and had awarded inflated damages to the couple. In reducing the award, the attorneys said the judge incorrectly substituted his own “enlightened conscience” for the jury’s.

They added that they were not aware of any laws tying damages to property values, and argued that —contrary to the judge’s ruling — compensation for mental distress is allowed under Georgia law. After paying taxes and attorneys fees, the Harrises’ attorneys also noted that their clients’ $5 million award would be whittled down to $1.34 million.

The case centers around a 100-megawatt solar facility built on rural land near Columbus known as the Lumpkin Solar Facility.

An aerial view of a Silicon Ranch solar project in Stewart County, Georgia is shown on April 9, 2020. (Courtesy of Chase Gibson)

Credit: Chase Gibson

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Credit: Chase Gibson

The panels were installed in 2021 through a partnership between Nashville-based solar developer Silicon Ranch and Walton Electric Membership Corp. of Georgia. Electricity from the site powers a data center owned by Meta — the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — in Newton County, about an hour east of Atlanta. In Georgia and other states with ample sunshine, big tech companies are turning to solar to meet their enormous energy demands and reduce their emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

The plaintiffs, the Harrises, live on a 1,630-acre property located downstream from the solar arrays. Their property, which includes a 21-acre lake, is managed as a wildlife and fishing refuge.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs alleged that nearly 1,000 acres of land uphill from the Harrises was cleared of vegetation and graded without adequate erosion controls around the project. When it rained, mud and sediment run then washed downhill into the couple’s fishing lake.

In April, a jury found Silicon Ranch and its contractor, Infrastructure and Energy Alternatives, Inc. (IEA), were negligent and acted with “specific intent to cause harm” in constructing the solar project.

The jury assigned $25 million in punitive damages to Silicon Ranch, and $50 million each to IEA and one of its subsidiaries, plus $10.5 million in compensatory damages against the three defendants. Westwood Professional Services Inc., the engineering firm behind the project’s erosion and sedimentation control plan, was cleared of liability.

In June, Judge Land also ordered the companies behind the project to halt any further releases of mud — or face potential penalties. A special master appointed to monitor the remediation has said it is expected to be complete by October 2024.

Lawyers for the Harrises said they had no comment on the new requests filed with the court.

After the judge weighs in on the request to reconsider, the plaintiffs will have 21 days to decide whether to accept the amount awarded or seek a trial solely on the damages.

Ahead of that potential new trial, the plaintiffs’ lawyers also asked the judge in a separate Tuesday filing to allow them to appeal certain aspects of the case — like whether damages for mental distress are allowed — to the Georgia Supreme Court or the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. It was not immediately clear when the judge might rule on those separate requests.

A representative for Silicon Ranch declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal case. IEA did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

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