The RSPCA has lost an appeal against a Victorian court order to pay more than $1.16 million in damages to the owners of 131 Murray Grey cattle killed by an RSPCA officer in 2003.
The cattle were shot by RSPCA officer Jason Nicholls while they were on agistment near Warrnambool in 2003, who reported at the time that the animals were emaciated, abandoned and neglected. With the assistance of others, Mr Nicholls put down the animals without the knowledge of the owners, who were in NSW at the time.
Two months later, the cattle owners, James Holdsworth and Heather Ellison, sued the RSPCA, saying the cows were not in a condition where they needed to be put down.
Last year, the long-running legal dispute was brought to a head when Victorian Country Court Judge John Bowman ruled that the RSPCA officer had acted “hastily and negligently” in destroying the cattle.
Judge Bowman said that while the cattle were “lean to very lean”, they would have recovered. He found that Mr Nicholls acted in haste, possibly out of a desire to avoid confrontation, or because he was obstinate or impatient.
It was revealed during the hearings that the RSPCA officer Mr Nicholls had survived being shot in the face by a farmer while inspecting mistreated sheep in 1999. The plaintiffs James Holdsworth and Heather Ellison argued that he should not have been reinstated doing field work with the RSCPA.
“The poor man was suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress after being shot,” their Peter Berman told the court. “They allowed him to carry a rifle to perform duties he was clearly unsuited for. Then they tried to disown him by distancing themselves from him and let him carry the whole proceeding himself.”
Mr Holdsworth and Ms Ellison said they had been devastated by the cull, and estimated their loss of profit, including artificial inseminations, to be in the millions. The court also heard that the RSPCA also unsuccessfully attempted to criminally prosecute the pair.
In May 2015 Judge Bowman he ordered the RSPCA to pay James Holdsworth and Heather Ellison $1.167 million in damages.
More than $990,000 of that sum was for lost business profit, while the other portion was awarded over a proposed artificial insemination venture that was not yet operational.
The RSPCA vowed to appeal the decision, with RSPCA Victoria CEO Dr Liz Walker telling the media that a “substantial injustice will be caused” if the decision by judge John Bowman was not “corrected”.
It argued in its appeal that the cattle were effectively abandoned and emaciated when inspectors found them.
The RSPCA said judge Bowman had also erred in assessing the farmers’ financial losses.
However, the Court of Appeal yesterday rejected the RSPCA’s application.
“The RSPCA’s appeal does not have a real prospect of success. Accordingly, leave to appeal must be refused,” the decision said.
The full decision can be read at this link