Edward M. Burdette's dairy farm in Gaithersburg looks bucolic: There are green rolling hills, white-washed fences, a clean milking barn and a simple farmhouse.
But Burdette contends that he discovered a problem at the placid farm seven years ago. He said he found that electrical cables of the Potomac Edison Co. were leaking electricity, which shocked his Holstein cows when they entered the barn, decreasing milk production and the value of the herd.
Burdette, 43, did not waste time crying over spilt milk. He and Juanita T. Burdette, his stepmother and co-owner of the farm and the 100 head of cattle on it, sued Potomac Edison for $500,000 for negligence. The trial, expected to last two weeks, is to begin today before Judge L. Leonard Ruben in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
John H. Bolgiano, the attorney for Potomac Edison, would not comment on the case, but in court documents the Hagerstown, Md.-based utility denied that it was negligent in its distribution of electricity and said the Burdettes did not properly electrify their farming operation or properly control their dairy herd.
Facilities on the Burdettes' farm were "completely in violation of the electrical code and thus responsible" for what is known as "stray voltage," Potomac Edison said in court papers. The documents added, "At no time including the present was there any indication of any defect in the facilities of the Potomac Edison Co."
The Burdettes and their attorney, Cynthia B. Malament, also declined to comment. But animal science experts and electrical engineers will testify on their behalf, according to court documents.
Burdette said in court papers that between 1979 and 1982, stray voltage -- an electrical current that strays from its expected course -- escaped from the power company's cables at 6520 Damascus Rd. in Gaithersburg, shocking his cows when they came into the milking parlor, the heart of a dairy farm's operation.
"The thing is, they are exposed to this electric shock at milking time, and therefore they don't do their natural thing," Burdette told a reporter when he filed his lawsuit three years ago.
"When your hands were wet, or when you would touch some of the tubing on the milking equipment in the parlor, you'd feel a tingle," Burdette said. "The thing of it is that cows are 28 times more sensitive to electricity than people are. They become jumpy."
After feeling "tingle" sensations, Burdette said, he called Potomac Edison to report that there was still voltage in the milking parlor area even with all of the farm's electrical service turned off. Potomac Edison "had knowledge that stray voltage problems were occurring on dairy farms in the areas it serviced," Burdette said in court papers.
"His cows started prancing about in the milk barn," said a source familiar with the situation. "They were nervous and jumpy as if they were on hot coals. And they were reluctant to enter the milking barn."
In addition, the electricity put the cows under stress and their milk production decreased, court documents charged. Robert Appleman of the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Minnesota visited Burdette's farm in 1981. While an engineer from Potomac Edison was present, Appleman said the "neutral-to-earth voltage" was an "off-farm" problem, court papers say.
At Potomac Edison's request, Burdette, whose father and grandfather were dairy farmers, had the wiring upgraded at his farm, which is in the upper western edge of Montgomery County. But the voltage problems did not disappear, he said.
After appeals to Potomac Edison were unsuccessful, Burdette said, the problem was finally eliminated when he installed an isolation transformer. The transformer, court papers indicate, isolated the stray voltage allegedly coming from Potomac Edison's cables from the power used in the milking barns.