29 Jun 2018

Kiwifruit growers on MAF PSA finding: 'You went from hero to zero'

8:04 pm on 29 June 2018

Kiwifruit growers say the win against the government over the spread of the vine killing disease PSA is "long overdue".

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Photo: RNZ / Susan Murray

The growers went to the High Court seeking at least $400 million, alleging negligence by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, a forerunner of the Ministry for Primary Industries.

This stemmed from the importation of pollen from China in 2009.

The High Court today partially upheld the growers' claim.

The court is yet to rule on just how much compensation the government must pay, but this will come after the government decides whether it will appeal the decision within the next 20 days.

In her judgment, Justice Mallon said the Ministry owed a duty of care to kiwifruit growers.

It had responsibility for controlling what goods could be imported into New Zealand and the risks of contamination should have been obvious.

The Kiwifruit Claim Committee - which took the claim on behalf of 212 growers and assisted by litigation funders LPF Group - said PSA decimated the industry and its impact was far-reaching, not only on growers and their individual orchards, but on the New Zealand economy.

The kiwifruit industry is worth about $1.67 billion a year.

Grower Craig Jeffries, who has been in the industry for more than 30 years, said the discovery of PSA in his orchard changed his life.

"I lost a big orchard through this and had to go out and find work and scrimp and save and makes ends meet and it has been a hard eight years."

Alistair Reese has also been a kiwifruit grower for a long time, and clearlyremembered the news that his orchard had PSA.

Alistair Reese

Alistair Reese Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

"Sock in the stomach and in the first instance we hoped that we might be able to combat it, but that was pretty quickly dashed and then the chainsaws came in.

"We are not through this crisis yet, but we are probably through the most painful part of it," he said.

The devastating news that PSA had struck also hit grower Mike Montgomery hard.

Mike Montgomery

Mike Montgomery Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

"Our equity had vanished, the properties were worthless and we had no option but to carry on and work out how to get through this."

Mr Montgomery said there was very little sympathy from certain banks.

"You went from hero to zero."

He said they all had the same attitude.

"They were pretty tough on you."

More than 200 growers took part in the class-action and they were overjoyed by the court decision.

Mr Jeffries said it came as a huge relief.

"It's vindication for the work these people [lawyers] have done under our name, and it's acknowledgment of something we knew existed and it's long overdue."

Craig Jeffries

Craig Jeffries Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Mr Reese said compensation could not fix the years of stress and heartache growers had to endure.

"Nothing replaces that, but the compensation will certainly be helpful."

Growers will now be on tenterhooks as the government weighs up it option to fight the decision or not.

Grant Eynon - a member of the Kiwifruit Claim Committee - said it would be wrong for an appeal to be lodged.

"This case doesn't open the floodgates, it is very specific to three of four failures by MPI and not carrying out their duties probably and this is really about making them accountable to start doing their job."

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters has been quick to laid the blame.

"My reaction is to look at the party that was in government at the time and ask, how come they allowed that to happen and a further 172 biosecurity breaches in their time of administration. Have a good hard look at them.

"It is going to cost a packet potentially and that is a judgment yet to be made by the court."

The kiwifruit growers' lawyers will now digest the judgment and prepare for either an appeal or a hearing to determine the amount of damages they will seek. They say it could be in the area of half a billion dollars.

MPI said it would study the 500+ page decision before making any comment.

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