VICTORIA’S animal protection agency has been dealt a major blow by a County Court ruling yesterday which found it negligent after inspectors euthanased 131 head of cattle at Framlingham.
It means the RSPCA is likely be ordered to pay at least $2 million damages for the loss of prized Murray Grey breeding stock and a substantial legal bill following a 44-day trial which heard from about 30 witnesses. It is understood to be the first successful court action against the society for destruction of livestock.
The ruling in Melbourne by Judge John Bowman follows a long and complicated legal battle by farmers James Holdsworth, of Westmere, and Heather Ellison, of Bairnsdale who had arranged for more than 300 head of cattle they jointly owned to be brought from drought-ravaged NSW to Framlingham forest for agistment in 2003. Senior RSPCA inspector Jason Nicholls and fellow RSPCA junior officer Mark Roberts shot the cattle in paddocks owned by Framlingham Aboriginal Trust after investigating reports of starving animals.
They then charged the livestock owners with cruelty, but the case was dismissed in Ballarat Magistrates Court.
The RSPCA argued through both cases it acted within its authority to prevent cruelty to animals and alleged the cattle had effectively been abandoned, neglected and were emaciated.
However, Judge Bowman ruled otherwise and said Nicholls “hastily and negligently” put down the animals which included two bulls and three calves.
A further hearing will be held on September 1 to discuss total damages payment.
RSPCA Victoria chief executive Maria Mercurio did not rule out challenging the decision.
“We will be consulting with our insurer and their legal team to consider our next steps in the legal process,” he said.
“We’re very disappointed with the outcome of today’s hearing. Our RSPCA inspectors work tirelessly to investigate and prosecute animal cruelty, with the sole aim of improving the lives of animals.”
Legal representative for the plaintiffs, Triston Weston, of Maitland Lawyers, said Mr Holdsworth and Ms Ellison were “elated, exhausted and relieved”.
“This has been a 10-year litigation which has been financially and emotionally draining,” he said.
“It’s been a David and Goliath battle with our small legal firm of two partners taking on a large specialist firm.
“The 44-day trial involved a Queen’s counsel and four barristers.
“Witnesses included former Moyne mayor Jim Doukas and Framlingham Aboriginal identity Geoff Clark.
“Our clients are just down-to-earth country people who told the truth.
“I believe this is the first time anyone has successfully sued the RSPCA for destruction of animals.”
Mr Weston, who was raised and educated in Warrnambool, said the RSPCA had effectively eradicated a herd with six or seven generations of careful breeding. “We say it’s now unviable for our clients to continue breeding with the herd that was left,” he said.
“They had only a truckload left to take home.”
The total of cattle shot by the RSPCA and taken to an abattoir at Tesbury was disputed, but the judge calculated 131 as the appropriate number. Other cattle were assumed to have died beforehand in the paddocks.