All facets of our daily lives have the imprint of lawsuits upon them. Tobacco, HMOs, the firearms industry, and automobile safety issues are just a few cases in recent history that come to mind. In the dairy industry, lawsuits have occurred because of feed issues, stray voltage and vaccination failures.

I have been involved in several agricultural lawsuits, and it has been frustrating to see how unprepared the average dairy producer is for litigation. Few producers realize the time, expense and emotional pain that comes with filing suit. If you have contemplated filing or carrying out a lawsuit, review the following points:

1. Cash flow constraints may jepordize your business. It takes an average of three to five years for a lawsuit to come to trial. During this time period, you must manage on-farm demands, plus prepare all of the required documentation and evidence needed for a trial. This often includes participating in hours of depositions, paying travel expenses to depose expert witnesses and collecting historical, financial and production data from your business.

2. Presenting a detailed case. I'm often surprised at how poorly prepared dairy farmers are in presenting documentation to prove their claim. In court, tax records and bank statements are insufficient in documenting a financial loss. The lack of corroborating data to support a claim hinders many producers, because most do not keep accurate records. If you enter litigation, be prepared to generate the following documentation:

  • five to seven years of DHI or certified production data.
  • complete and accurate records on animals that have left the herd.
  • treatment records for the last five years.
  • feed formulas and daily feed sheets for three to five years.
  • educational credentials for management, owners, employees.
  • daily milk receipts.
  • monthly bank statements
  • animal health and veterinary invoices and reports.
  • laboratory reports.
  • crop production statements.

3. Hire a knowledgeable attorney. Often, a farm will choose to be represented by its local attorney concerning losses that the farm may have incurred.

While your first instinct may be to go with a trusted adviser, you should consider hiring an attorney who has experience in litigation and in the area of your claim. It is the job of the attorney to educate the jury as to the inner workings of a dairy farm and then prove that losses have been inflicted. Your local attorney can provide you with creditable references.

4. Prepare for an emotional roller coaster. Most dairy producers are naive to the harsh, impersonal nature of a lawsuit. They work hard on their farms and seldom have anyone criticize them. However, once you enter the arena of the judicial system, you subject your personal life, business skills and educational level to scrutiny.

Depositions and trial testimonies are grueling. Television dramas fail to portray the emotional drain that a lawsuit has on the family or individual. I have seen lawsuits that incur dire and lasting consequences. For example, your decision to litigate against a local company may cause division within the community. Every member of the family must be willing to endure the pressure.

5. Consider alternative, affordable solutions.

The ability to carry through a lawsuit and obtain a favorable court decision requires money. Even though an attorney may not be able to assess his fees until the judgment is reached, the cost of preparation takes its toll on the dairy's cash flow. Large corporations can wage an expensive lawsuit, requiring extensive information that taxes the dairy's ability to operate effectively.

In my experience, submitting the case for arbitration may be the most judicious route. In arbitration, both sides agree to abide by the decision of a third party.

Take time to fully understand the personal and professional implications of a lawsuit. A lack of adequate documentation and financial commitment can lead to a long and lengthy process that may have an undesirable outcome.

Paul Johnson is a veterinarian and consultant in Enterprise, Ala.