Trial Victory Sabal Trail v. Thomas Trust (2)
Jury Panel Rejects Sabal Trail Transmission’s Zero Damages
Written by Andrew Brigham

In a federal trial before the Honorable Paul C. Huck, U.S. District Court Judge, a jury of twelve awarded verdicts of $861,264 and $463,439 to landowners Lee and Ryan Thomas as “full compensation” to be paid by Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC (“Sabal Trail”). This is only the second case to proceed to a jury trial regarding Sabal Trail’s pipeline.

Source: Brigham Property Rights Law Firm

In another trial involving landowners who had easement rights taken by Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC, a jury of twelve awarded verdicts of $861,264 and $463,439 to landowners Lee and Ryan Thomas as “full compensation”. Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC v. +/- 18.27 Acres of Land, Lee A Thomas, Trustee, Case No. 1:16-cv-00093-MW-GRJ (N.D. Fla. 2016).

The case proceeded in federal court before U.S. District Court Judge Paul C. Huck last week in Gainesville. Court documents show that Sabal Trail contended that the landowners should receive only $34,000 and $5,100, respectively. Sabal Trail’s appraiser opined “Zero Damages.”

The chief proposition weighed by the jury at trial was whether market participants see their property as less valuable with an interstate natural gas pipeline in their backyards. The question is raised by the creation of a use that some identify as a “NIMBY” (“Not-In-My-Back-Yard”).

Proceedings have been on-going since March, 2016, when, according to the federal court dockets, Sabal Trail filed up to 263 eminent domain cases in both the Northern and Middle United States District Courts. Landowners have had to litigate with Sabal Trail over the measure of compensation over the 36-diameter pipeline which transmits 1 billion cubic feet of gas per day to Florida power plants owned by Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy.

Many landowners in Florida retained Brigham Property Rights Law Firm to represent them against Sabal Trail. Andrew Brigham devotes his law practice to representing owners in property rights cases including eminent domain. It was his grandfather’s case in 1950, Dade County v. Brigham, which established that Florida’s “full compensation” measure includes payment of a landowner’s attorneys’ fees and costs. Under Florida law, this allows landowners to have a level playing field in defense of their property rights against Sabal Trail. According to Brigham, his firm represents nearly 50 landowners in the Sabal Trail project. Working with Brigham are lawyers Chris Bucalo, Trevor Hutson, E. Scott Copeland, and Brett Tensfeldt.

The trial transcript shows that Brigham’s firm retained an appraiser, Matthew Ray, MAI, to prepare a damage study comparing pairings of impact properties with pipelines to non-impact properties without pipelines to determine if there is any evidence of severance damages. According to his testimony, Ray was able to find approximately 126 such pairings in seven rural counties in Florida. Based on his study, Ray’s opinion was that, more often than not, properties with pipelines do in fact sell for less than properties without pipelines.

As reflected in the trial transcript, Lee Thomas, 74, retired as a pharmacist in Williston. Lee always wanted to be a farmer, but instead bought his father’s pharmacy. His son, Ryan, worked on his grandfather’s farm at a young age. He didn’t want to go to college. Lee made him. Ryan graduated with a B.S. in Food and Agricultural Sciences from the University of Florida in 1997. He has been a farmer ever since. In 2003, Lee wanted Ryan to fulfill his vision and have his own farm. So, he created a trust and purchased an 837-acre farm in Levy County.

Also reflected in the trial transcript, in June, 2016, Sabal Trail was given “immediate possession” of both temporary and permanent easement running through the middle of the Thomas’ family farm, also known as RBT Farms. Trial exhibits showed, on one end of the farm, the pipeline cut diagonally through the grove of mature live oaks, removing 25 oak trees. Trial exhibits also showed, on the other end of the farm, the pipeline cut diagonally through fields. Likewise, trial exhibits further showed that the pipeline is located 300 feet from Ryan’s back porch overlooking the pond. The trial transcript included testimony that, in accordance with the right of “immediate possession” granted by the Court, Sabal Trail has a period of 3.2 years within which to construct its pipeline.

As it happened, Sabal Trail constructed its pipeline on RBT Farms in early 2017, during the middle of the 2017 watermelon season. In exercising its rights as an easement holder, Sabal Trail is not required to coordinate with the underlying fee owner regarding either the location of its pipeline or the time of its construction. Ryan had to plant peanuts instead of watermelons, a less productive crop, for the 2017 growing season. It is also clear from this year’s 2018 growing season that the crops within the easement areas yield less production. Photographs at trial clearly showed the difference.

Trial transcripts show that Brigham contrasted the industry’s public safety awareness slogan, “Know What’s Below,” with its insistence that if the pipeline is buried market participants don’t see any damage outside the easement areas. In closing argument, Brigham made clear that Lee and Ryan Thomas were not asking for their “sympathy” but instead sought “justice” in regards to the fair market measure of “full compensation.” The jury determined verdicts of $861,264 for Lee’s farm and $463,439 for Ryan’s home.

When reached for comment, Brigham stated that the verdict amounts were equal to a 10% severance damage on Lee’s farm and a 50% on Ryan’s home. Brigham further expressed appreciation for the judicial branch’s “check and balance” on a private, for-profit company’s use of the eminent domain power: “The landowners are appreciative of the federal courts being open for redress of common citizens and conducting jury trials as a means to protect the constitutional private property rights of those whose property has been taken for the Sabal Trail Pipeline. Jury trials balance power; they make us free.”