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Jury awards $1.8 million damages to farmer over land lease dispute with Sinclair CEO

Phoenix, MD -- Stephen T. Pieper, owner of Hunter Mill Farms, stands near a field of his corn that was destroyed in a dispute with the landowner, David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Phoenix, MD -- Stephen T. Pieper, owner of Hunter Mill Farms, stands near a field of his corn that was destroyed in a dispute with the landowner, David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

A Baltimore County jury has awarded more than $1.8 million in damages to a White Hall farmer embroiled in a long-simmering land lease dispute with the CEO of Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group.

After a seven-day trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court, that ended last Friday, a jury found that Stephen Pieper did not breach a lease on 95 acres he farmed in Monkton, part of a 235-acre parcel that Sinclair CEO David Smith bought in March 2013 through Corbett Farms II LLC. At issue was the interpretation of the five-year lease Pieper signed in 2011 with the prior owner.

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According to the verdict, Smith unlawfully hired someone July 20 to plow under a corn crop that Pieper planted and did so "willfully and with malice."

For his counterclaim, Pieper was awarded $1.5 million in punitive damages and $325,000 in additional damages related to the crop destruction.

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"It's been a rough couple of years," said Pieper, who leases about 1,000 acres of farmland in Baltimore and Harford counties. "I hope this outcome protects farmers in the future in similar situations."

An attorney for Smith said he is preparing post-trial motions asking the court for a new trial or to reverse the jury's decision.

"We don't think it bears any relationship to the evidence," said Francis R. Laws of Thomas & Libowitz. "We obviously have a different view, and there are some things we feel fairly strongly about."

Thomas C. Beach III, an attorney for Pieper, said his client feels vindicated.

"You don't knock down 95 acres of corn to make a point," said Beach, an attorney with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston in Columbia. "They sued him, claiming that they could break his lease, and he said, 'No, I've prepaid rent for five years and expect to farm it for five years.'"

Corbett Farms II filed a lawsuit against Pieper in March 2013, saying the farmer breached the terms of the lease by failing to adequately treat the soil, prevent topsoil erosion or furnish soil samples for analysis. Pieper also blocked Smith from his land, padlocking the gate to the farm's only access road, said the lawsuit, in which Smith accused Pieper of trespassing to plant the corn crop.

The jury found that Pieper did not trespass when he placed farming equipment on the nonleased portion of the property or in April 2014 when he planted the crop without Corbett Farms consent and blocked the property's entrance.

Instead, on Pieper's counterclaim, the jury found that Corbett Farms breached the lease and awarded Pieper $33,060 for three years' worth of rent.

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