By Leisa Boley Hellwarth, a dairy farmer and attorney near Celina
In a likely attempt to reach every dairy farmer in the U.S. who purchased robotic milkers, plaintiffs lawyers have been mailing information to every dairy farmer in the nation. The first post card arrived at my house several months ago from usfarmlaw.com, the website for Cullenberg & Tensen, a New Hampshire law firm. Attorney Arend Tensen looks more like the beef farmer he also is in his website pictures. There is more farm equipment pictured on his website than legal resources. Obviously, Tensen’s perceived strength is his agricultural background and current investments.
The card that arrived last week came from Steuve. Siegel. Hanson, LLP, trial lawyers and no one in their website wears anything but power clothes, and I do not mean winter weight Carharts or hunting gear camo. This was one of the firms front and center in the Syngenta class action, so they are used to slaying Goliath, even if they look a little Goliathy to me. In fact, Attorney Patrick Steuve, who is handling the robotic milking litigation for the firm, wears a bow tie in his photo and there are 22 attorneys separately profiled in their attorney section of the website.
A quick Google search (roboticmilkingfailue.com) determined that Tensen and Steuve are working together representing a class action against DeLaval. The lawsuit alleges that the voluntary milking system robots were defective and failed to perform as represented. Specifically, the systems did not achieve “true quarter milking” as promised, dairy farmers were not permitted to upgrade their VMS robots, and the system did not come equipped with mastitis detection and an online cell counter. The lawsuit further claims that the plaintiffs lawyers have already obtained evidence from former DeLaval sales agents, attached to the lawsuit that the robots were defective, and that its marketing was misleading or fraudulent.
Of course, there are at least two sides to every story. I suspect that DeLaval denies the allegations and has a whole other explanation for the situation. Given that robots have been used successfully in Europe for years, there are likely to be denials and counterclaims. Tense and Steuve are also investigating potential cases against Lyle and Galaxy, related to the robotic milking systems they sold in the U.S. that had operational problems or failed to perform as advertised.
Why a class action? So long as there are at least forty plaintiffs injured by the defendant in the same way, a class action aggregates many claims into one lawsuit, thereby lowering the cost of litigation. And, unlike the rest of civil litigation in this country, if a class action plaintiff prevails, the attorney fees are paid by the defendant. Keep in mind, however, that a class action binds all group members, unless a plaintiff formally opts out of the group.
I always advise clients you do not go to court to make money. In this instance, should the plaintiffs prevail, they will be awarded damages to make them whole. And I have no idea how you calculate the cost of a defective robotic system in the middle of one of the worst dairy economies in history. This litigation is new, though, and anything is possible.