Tunbridge dairy farmers whose cows became sick after ingesting stainless steel wire found in their feed last fall have sued the telecommunications companies they believe are responsible.
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Amber and Scott Hoyt at Hoyt Hill Farmstead in Tunbridge on July 2. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

Amber and Scott Hoyt’s complaint — filed by Arend Tensen, an attorney with the New Hampshire-based firm Cullenberg & Tensen — names four defendants: Eustis Cable Enterprises, ValleyNet, ECFiber, and Crammer O’Connors Fiber Genesis.

It accuses those parties of negligence, nuisance, trespassing and consumer fraud, and asks for punitive damages and a trial by jury. It was filed Nov. 5 and served Nov. 18.

In a statement, ECFiber Chairman F. X. Flinn said the telecommunications companies had been working for months to “resolve the matter, determine responsibility, and ensure that those who are responsible are held accountable.” He expressed disappointment that the Hoyts had gone ahead with the lawsuit.

“Attorney Tensen’s decision to file suit at this sensitive time, at the precise moment when the parties and their respective carriers had come to the table in good faith, has likely significantly delayed resolution of the Hoyts’ claim,” ECFiber officials said in a statement issued Friday.

Donna McCann, a paralegal at Cullenberg & Tensen, which represents the Hoyts, said the firm has “no comment to make regarding our decision to file suit at this time.” Amber and Scott Hoyt also declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The problem remains unresolved for the Hoyts, who previously told VTDigger that the situation could be crucial for their farm. Three cows died after ingesting wire, and more than 70 have been exposed to the contaminated feed.

In August, the farmers learned their insurance claim had been denied because the subcontractor who performed the work wasn’t fully insured at the time.

ECFiber, a communication union district that serves the Upper Valley, has been working to expand broadband in the area. The district hired a contractor, Eustis Cable, to help complete the job, and Eustis hired a subcontractor, Crammer O’Connors Fiber Genesis, whose workers used a stainless steel lashing wire to “lash a cable or cables to a supporting strand” between telephone poles in the fields where the Hoyts harvested hay, according to the complaint. ValleyNet operates the line.

Crammer O’Connors Fiber Genesis worked in Tunbridge on five dates during the fall of 2019, and that’s when “lashing wire was discarded or left in the fields by Crammer’s installation crew,” the complaint alleges.

Then, in September 2020, the Hoyts found pieces of mangled wire, like needles, in their cows’ feed, which is made of hay mixed from several fields. It appeared the chopper that mowed their fields had inadvertently ground wire in with the hay.

The Hoyts have taken standard measures to prevent so-called “hardware disease,” which can affect farm animals that inadvertently ingest metal or other farm equipment. Their chopper is equipped with a metal detector that collects metal pieces, and the cows swallow magnets that harmlessly sit in their stomach to collect stray hardware they might ingest.

But the type of stainless steel wire found in the fields wasn’t magnetic, so it slipped through the farmers’ protective measures.

Since last December, some of the cows have shown symptoms the Hoyts hadn’t seen before: sudden bloody noses, signs of discomfort, a high number of aborted calves and declining milk production. With their vet, the Hoyts performed necropsies of cows that died and pulled wire from their bodies. More than 70 have eaten the contaminated feed.

“As a result of the feed being damaged in the fall of 2019, plaintiffs’ herd was exposed to the feed and all are at risk of dying or being injured,” the complaint says.

Damages suffered by the Hoyts, according to the complaint, include the cost of replacing contaminated feed, reduced milk production, veterinary services, time spent caring for sick cows and investigating the problem, damage to their fields and a reduction in the value of their herd.

“Plaintiffs have suffered personal injury and severe emotional stress as a result of witnessing the damages being occasioned by their dairy herd and operations, being unable to control the numerous problems experienced within their operations and engaging in extraordinary efforts in an attempt to correct those problems,” the complaint says.

ECFiber’s statement said the district hopes to resolve matters by Christmas this year.

It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic caused milk prices to plummet…

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