North Dakota Man Sues AT&T Cable

September 22, 2008

A landowner is suing AT&T over a telecommunications cable on his property in a case a lawyer says might throw wide open the issue of cables buried in North Dakota road ditches.

The lawsuit against AT&T Corp. and AT&T Communications-East Inc. is in federal court in Bismarck as a proposed class action, meaning it could potentially involve hundreds of state residents. Mike Miller, one of the attorneys representing plaintiff Don Gerber of the Dickinson area, said the outcome also might affect other communication and utility companies that use road ditches for their cables.

“‘This may be the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

AT&T spokesman Michael Coe declined comment on the lawsuit, which says 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 may have obtained permits from the state or political subdivisions to install the cable, but it should have known the state or political subdivisions had no ownership right in the land and thus also should have entered into agreements with landowners,” the complaint says.

Miller said the complaint was filed in North Dakota “because the law is so clear in North Dakota as to who owns the land, even when there’s a highway or road over the land.” In some other states, he said, governments with highway easements can use the land “in any way they want to advance the public interest.”

In North Dakota, the lawsuit says, “highway easements only allow for the use of the easement for highway purposes.”

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T trespassed on private land and put signs on that land threatening prosecution of anyone who disturbs the cable.

“AT&T has no right to exercise dominion and control over the land,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that AT&T has no rights to the property in question. It also seeks financial damages of more than $75,000, a minimum set by the court, though any actual damages would likely be much higher.

“AT&T has reaped substantial revenues, believed to be millions of dollars per year, from its occupation and use of the land of (Gerber) and the other members of the class, which … rightfully should be (paid) to the named plaintiff and the other members of the class,” the lawsuit says.

The amount of North Dakota land with buried AT&T cable is not known, according to the lawsuit. About 300 miles of fiber optic cable beneath BNSF Railway land from Fargo to the Montana border is not part of the lawsuit.

A judge would have to certify the case as class action before it would involve any plaintiffs other than Gerber.

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