A class-action complaint, filed this July in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, seeks millions of dollars in damages from four telecom companies, alleging a deliberate failure to obtain the permission of hundreds of Beaver County property owners before burying fiber-optic cables on their lands.
According to the plaintiffs in Lake Forest Partners LP et al. v. Sprint Communications Co. LP et al. (case no. 2:12 – cv-00999), the defendant telecoms – Sprint, Qwest Communications Co., Level 3 Communications and Wiltel Communications – negotiated directly with railroad companies holding rights-of-way in the class members’ properties, violating the terms of those encumbrances and failing to compensate or even notify the landowners.
With the widespread adoption of commercial fiber-optic technology beginning in the 1980’s, telecom companies have raced to build their transcontinental networks, and the nation’s rail system has provided convenient, ready-made corridors for laying millions of miles of cable and related equipment. The problem, argue the affected property owners, is that the railroads have no unilateral right to permit this kind of activity, which falls outside the "railroad purposes" scope of the rights-of-way granted to them.
According to the Lake Forest complaint, the defendant telecoms circumvented the landowners in favor of the railroads to "achieve both lower costs and extra speed in installing their telecommunications cable systems." As a result, the railroads allegedly benefited from rich payment agreements with the telecoms while property owners got nothing. The plaintiffs are now demanding unspecified damages in the millions of dollars for trespass and slander of title, as well as disgorgement of profits and injunctive relief to remove the gear that has already been buried under their lands.
The fiber-optics/railroad right-of-way class-action has become a well-traveled route in telecom litigation. Since the 1990’s, a number of communications companies have been hit with suits in other states, among the biggest of which, against AT&T, resulted in a payout of $45,000 per mile to aggrieved landowners. In fact, it’s not even the first time down this track for Sprint, Qwest, Level 3 and Wiltel. In 2011, the four settled an Illinois case for $14 million in exchange for easement deeds to keep their cables in place.
As of this writing, defendants’ answer to the Lake Forest complaint has not been filed, but if history is any guide, the plaintiffs may be expecting to climb aboard a gravy train that just seems to keep chugging along.