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Damages trial set in Thompson Farms case against Aurora County

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news Mitchell, 57301

Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

PLANKINTON -- Aurora County will not appeal a Jan. 6 decision that found the county liable to pay damages in a farm family's lawsuit, and the controversy now heads to a trial at which the amount of damages will be determined.

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Roger Tellinghuisen, the county's attorney in the dispute, received permission from the county commissioners Jan. 10 to waive the county's right to appeal the liability decision. The permission came with the condition that the county won't have to pay trial-related costs to the South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance.

A jury found that the Alliance, the county's liability carrier, is not liable to pay damages caused by a 1998 county zoning cap on cattle numbers that forced the Thompson family to lose its dairy operation. The jury found, among other things, that the county did not provide timely notice of the Thompsons' complaint to the Alliance.

"Because the SDPAA was successful in the jury trial, they're entitled to recover certain statutory costs from the county," Tellinghuisen said. "What the Alliance has agreed to is that they will waive their right to recover costs from the county in exchange for the county not appealing."

The costs, which include depositions, copying costs, exhibit preparation and witness fees, would have totaled $14,000, Tellinghuisen said.

Now that the liability dispute between the county and its insurer is resolved, Thompson Farms can proceed with its damages trial against Aurora County. Court documents indicate Thompson Farms could seek millions of dollars, based on the value of its former dairy operation.

Mark Meierhenry, attorney for Thompson Farms, said a July jury trial has been set to determine how much Aurora County owes the Thompsons. A judge previously ruled that the county's 1998 zoning law amounted to an illegal taking of the Thompsons' operation, but the judge said a trial is needed to determine an amount for damages.

The damages trial is scheduled to last six days, with one day set aside for jury selection. Meierhenry has already filed a motion for a change of venue, stating a jury in Aurora County will likely not give the Thompsons a fair trial due to extensive media attention.

"We urge the change of venue to a new county whose main daily paper is not The Daily Republic ... because (the case) has gotten a lot of coverage in your paper," Meierhenry said in an interview with The Daily Republic.

In the recent trial to determine whether Aurora County is liable to pay Thompson Farms, Meierhenry said the judge granted a change of venue after potential jurors completed questionnaires that indicated the SDPAA would not get a fair trial.

"If they couldn't get a fair trial in Aurora County, why would the Thompsons?" Meierhenry said.

It's been nearly 10 years since the Thompsons filed the original lawsuit and two years since the damages portion has been delayed.

Meierhenry said his clients are pleased the damages portion of the case is finally moving forward.

"The worst part has been the 2½ years the case was stayed," he said. "We had no control over that and we couldn't do anything. They're more than ready to get this over with in July."

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