Settlement reached in Dickinson cable caseBISMARCK (AP) — A proposed settlement has been reached between AT&T and a southwestern North Dakota rancher who accused the telecommunications company of trampling private property rights because fiber optic cable had been buried in roadside ditches in 1998, according to court documents filed Wednesday.
BISMARCK (AP) — A proposed settlement has been reached between AT&T and a southwestern North Dakota rancher who accused the telecommunications company of trampling private property rights because fiber optic cable had been buried in roadside ditches in 1998, according to court documents filed Wednesday.
The settlement, which still must be approved by a judge, calls for property owners east of Dickinson to be paid 75 cents per foot of cable buried in roadway ditches. In return, AT&T would get easements allowing it to maintain cable in the ditches in an area about 11 miles long.
The lawsuit against AT&T Corp. and AT&T Communications-East Inc. was filed in federal court in Bismarck last September by Dickinson-area rancher Don Gerber as a proposed class action, meaning it would include other property owners if a judge approved. It said AT&T did not obtain the proper permission from landowners when it laid underground cable on private property, including on land for which governments — state, county or township — have easements for roads.
AT&T said it legally buried cable in North Dakota road ditches, and it asked the judge to throw out the lawsuit.
Plaintiff’s attorney Mike Miller said that during the information-gathering process known as discovery, lawyers realized that the “great majority” of AT&T cable was buried on railroad right of way — an issue resolved two years ago when AT&T agreed in a similar settlement to pay property owners with cable on land adjacent to railroad right of way.
“Once the size of the (road ditch) class was determined, it made sense to settle the case,” Miller said Wednesday.
The proposal said AT&T concluded that settling “is desirable in order to reduce the time and expense of multiple-claim litigation.” AT&T does not acknowledge any liability or wrongdoing in the settlement.
“We thought this was a reasonable settlement,” AT&T spokesman Walt Sharp said Wednesday.
The exact number of landowners affected by the settlement will not be known until after a process in which potential participants are notified and given the chance to “opt out” of the agreement and proceed with their own lawsuits.
The settlement also has a provision in which former owners of affected property might be eligible for reduced compensation.
Plaintiff’s attorneys would get $12,500 that would be separate from the money going to landowners. Gerber, as the lead plaintiff, would get an extra $1,000.
Miller said it is possible that other companies have cable, electrical lines or pipelines buried in roadway ditches without the proper landowner permission, and that the AT&T settlement, should it be approved, might not be the end of the issue.
“(It) could well be just the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ ” he said.
— Press reporter Beth Wischmeyer contributed to this story