Farmer entitled to €299,000 damages after department failed to return cattle

Department of Agriculture seized cattle after dispute about animal welfare, Supreme Court told

Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES

Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES

 

A farmer is entitled to some €299,000 damages, plus interest, over the Department of Agriculture’s failure to return 223 of 355 cattle seized from his farm following a dispute about their welfare, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The department had appealed a High Court decision assessing damages for Co Tipperary farmer John Hanrahan at €304,320, plus interest, but did not appeal findings he was entitled to damages over its failure to return the cattle, which it sold.

An expert for Mr Hanrahan put his damages at €834,638 before interest but an expert for the department calculated his losses at €1,979 or “virtually nil”.

While not criticising the individual experts in this “difficult case, such a “high ball-low ball” approach was an example of a “more widespread phenomenon” raising issues about expert evidence, its acceptance and treatment, Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell noted in his Supreme Court judgment.

The costs of the seven-day High Court case to assess damages may outweigh the actual damages, he observed.

This was no criticism of the High Court judge, who had to allow the sides make whatever cases they wished, “however unrealistic”.

It was difficult to believe justice “may not have been done more cheaply” if a “more focused and realistic” approach was taken by the parties.

In this case, Mr Hanrahan’s method of conducting his business during the relevant period was “somewhat unorthodox” and it appeared the assessment of damages was on the basis there were no relevant books, records or even tax returns establishing the profitability or otherwise of his farm during the period, the judge said.

Only at the end of the High Court case had it emerged there was a “complicated and undisclosed arrangement” between Mr Hanrahan and a brother-in-law in the UK to fund operation of his farm “in a sum in excess of €1 million”, he said.

It was clear there was some “distrust and misunderstanding” between the sides and “frustration and scepticism” on the part of the department with Mr Hanrahan.

As often happens, parties may become entrenched to the point where the logic of pursuing a claim, or its defence, becomes secondary “and it would not be surprising if this occurred in this case”.

Having analysed the damages awarded under various headings, he said the Supreme Court was varying aspects of the damages awarded by the High Court but its total award, of €299,000, was just some €5,000 less than the High Court’s.

The award includes some €161,320 for the value of the cattle. The exact sum, including interest, will be finalised later.

The court disallowed a cross-appeal by Mr Hanrahan alleging there were material errors in the High Court judgment.

Mr Hanrahan sued the Minister for Agriculture arising from the department’s March 2006 seizure of 355 cattle from his farm at Ballcurkeen, Carrick-on-Suir. The High Court later found welfare issues justified the seizure at that time.

An agreement was reached between Mr Hanrahan and the department in April 2006 under which cattle would be returned to his farm so as to bring the total animals up to a maximum 328 livestock units.

The department later claimed Mr Hanrahan had not complied with the agreement and said some animals would be sold. 149 animals were returned to Mr Hanrahan and the department sold 223 others for €55,250 in June 2006.

In the High Court in June 2009, Mr Justice Bryan McMahon found the Minister breached the April 2006 agreement in failing to deliver the 223 cattle back. He later assessed damages.

Mr Hanrahan previously came to prominence in the 1980s when he won a high-profile legal battle against pharmaceutical giant Merck, Sharp and Dohme over emissions which, he alleged, had decimated his dairy herd.