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Jury: Enbridge owes Douglas County family $150K for illegal pipelines

Enbridge Energy illegally installed three pipelines on private land owned by a Douglas County family and owes $150,000 in damages, but should not be required to remove the lines, a jury ruled Friday.

The six-member Douglas County jury found that the lines, installed in 2002 and 2009, are trespassing on land owned by Gerald and Barbara Engelking and their son, Jeremy.

For the Engelkings, it’s a significant victory after a prolonged battle with the multinational corporation.

“We’ve been going at this for 12 years with Enbridge, claiming that they’ve been trespassing on our land,” Gerald Engelking told the News Tribune. “Tonight, the court system has validated our claims.”

Enbridge attorney Joseph Mihalek indicated to the court that an appeal is likely to be filed. Outside the courtroom, he said he could not comment on his client’s matters.

The jury, which on Thursday issued a mixed ruling that left the judge and attorneys muddled, was called back Friday to provide further clarification and consider damages in the second phase of the trial.

Jurors determined that the three pipelines are, indeed, trespassing. The panel seemed to make that same ruling Thursday, but also ruled on another question: Workers were not trespassing when they cleared vegetation to make way for future lines.

The case has lingered in the court system for several years, the result of a dispute between Enbridge and the Engelkings over a 1949 easement agreement authorizing the installation of pipelines, signed by the previous owner of the land. Three lines installed under the agreement were not disputed.

Enbridge has since installed three more lines, claiming the agreement allowed for installation anywhere on the property. The Engelkings contended the agreement limited the company to a 50-foot corridor where the old lines are installed.

The dispute made national headlines in 2009 when Jeremy Engelking was arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct after confronting pipeline workers who were on his property without authorization. Those charges were later dismissed.

Friday’s verdict made it clear that jurors agreed with the Engelkings.

Kevin Sandstrom, the Engelkings’ attorney, argued to jurors that Enbridge overstepped its authority by installing the new lines against the wishes of the landowners. He noted that Enbridge may attempt to install additional lines with its proposed Sandpiper project.

“Where is Enbridge going to stop?” he asked jurors. “It doesn’t seem that they’ll ever stop. And what would be the result? They will take over the entirety of the Engelkings’ property with oil pipelines.”

Sanderson asked jurors to award nearly $300,000 in damages, calculating “rent” payments based on the rate Enbridge paid a neighboring property owner for land use.

Mihalek told jurors, based on assessments of the land with and without the pipelines, the true value of damages suffered by the Engelkings amounted to about $4,000.

He noted that the family has not developed the land in nearly four decades of ownership, nor have they ever rented the land to anybody. The land has been used almost exclusively for recreational purposes.

“Adding three more pipelines underground did not in any way deprive them of the full use and possession of that property as they used it for 38 years,” he argued. “They can speculate about what they might do in the future to develop it, and how that might affect their development, but the fact of the matter is they’ve never done it and they have no plans to do it.”

The jury’s verdict awarded $100,000 to Gerald and Barbara Engelking, and $50,000 to Jeremy Engelking.

The jury was also asked to advise the court on whether Enbridge should be required to remove the three trespassing lines. The members answered “no” to separate questions about removing the 2002 and 2009 installations.

Earlier in the day, Enbridge construction services manager Lloyd Mott testified that it would cost about $7.2 million to move the pipeline. Sandstrom said Enbridge could afford that, noting that the company brought in about $25 billion in revenue last year.

The Engelkings said they were not too concerned that the jury did not grant all of their damages requests. The trespassing finding was far more important, they agreed.

“The issue of trespassing is resolved, pending an appeal,” Gerald Engelking said. “This is what we were looking for.”

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