Local News

Monday, Mar 31 2014 04:38 PM

Breach of contract could cost Kern farm operation $130 million

By STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

A breach of contract verdict could cost two Kern and Kings county farming operations nearly $130 million.

A Kings County jury handed down the eye-popping $128.6 million award Friday, more than two months after the trial started.

John Vidovich, a partner in Sandridge Farms, which has a large farming presence in Kern County, was found to have intentionally interfered with a contract.

McCarthy Family Farms, of Kings County, was found to have breached its contract to sell lands to Los Angeles-area developer Quay Hays, a principal member of GROW (Green Renewable Organic & Water) Holdings LLC.

The jury award was broken into $73.4 million in compensatory damages and $55.21 million in punitive damages, according to a press release issued by Hays' attorneys, Baker, Keener & Nahra, of Los Angeles.

The dispute involves more than 34 square miles of fallowed ag land and water rights in excess of 25,000 acre feet a year, according to the release.

Hays made headlines around the state back in 2007 when he first proposed using the land to build a 150,000-resident solar powered city called "Quay Valley."

Hays' attorneys state that the project was forced into mothballs by the actions of Vidovich, who bought the property out from under Hays and then "sought to transfer the water ... to his property in the Central Valley."

Vidovich's attorney, Marshall Whitney of Fresno, was measured when asked for comment.

"We believe there are issues that we need to present to the trial judge," Whitney said of the verdict. "And there is always the distinct possibility of an appeal. Because of the timing of the case, we're not at liberty to discuss it further."

Vidovich said in an email to The Californian: "The verdict is an injustice."

In their press release, Baker, Keener & Nahra declared that Vidovich had a great need of water in 2009, as Sandridge Farms had sold 14,000 acre feet of its State Water Project rights to the Mojave Water Agency in San Bernardino. That water was sold for about $77 million, according to news reports at the time.

"The need and greed involving water will compel people to ignore a contract or interfere with the contractual rights of others. This jury righted those wrongs," states Phil Baker, who represented GROW Land in the trial.

Vidovich lost a round in another water case in Tulare County earlier this month.

A Tulare County judge issued a preliminary injunction against Sandridge Farms to stop pumping groundwater and moving it off the property, according to a March 25 Fresno Bee story.

Tipton-based Lower Tule River Irrigation District sued Sandridge last year alleging the farming operation pumped thousands of acre feet of water from wells on unused land and moved it 25 miles to an almond farm in western Kings County.

Sandridge has said in court papers the water was used by an adjoining landowner, not moved across the valley, according to the Bee.

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