Government could have to pay out hundreds of millions to kiwifruit growers

Kiwifruit growers devastated by the vine-killing disease Psa could be entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation after a High Court ruling in their favour.

A class action brought by 212 kiwifruit growers against the Attorney General claimed the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) failed to take reasonable care when allowing pollen from China to be imported.

The Psa outbreak, which was first detected in 2010, devastated many orchards, left some owners bankrupt and caused huge stress to farmers. Growers argued the Government should be liable for costs. Some in the industry say that could be at least $450 million. The Government already paid out $25 million in compensation in initial stages.

A High Court ruling handed down this morning by Justice Jillian Mallon ruled in favour of most of the growers.

She agreed MPI - formerly the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries - breached its duty of care to at least some of the orchardists and the imported pollen was the cause of the outbreak.

The ruling says Te Puke-based Kiwi Pollen had a permit from MPI to import pollen from China and did so in June 2009.

The ministry earlier held a review of pests and diseases related to pollen but the scope of that review was unclear.

Justice Mallon says the science was faulty because it overstated the results drawn from a single source. It also assumed the pollen involved was pure and uncontaminated.

That faulty review was relied on by those looking at whether Kiwi Pollen's application should be approved, and when the pollen reached New Zealand it was probably not inspected.

Justice Mallon said it's "more likely than not that the consignment contained Psa and that ultimately caused the disease outbreak in New Zealand".

The Government now has 20 working days to file an appeal.

MPI will make a decision on whether to appeal the judgement after "careful consideration of the judgement... That decision must be made by the Solicitor-General, not MPI."

If an appeal isn't filed - or if an appeal is later rejected - the next stage in the court process will look at compensation - who is entitled for payment and exactly how much.

Grant Eynon from Kiwifruit Claim Grower Committee says it's a landmark decision and hoped it draws a line in the sand for the past eight years. 

"We hope the Government accepts the court's decision and the kiwifruit claim growers can be properly compensated for their losses," he said.