Bay businesses join Rena legal fight

By Carly Gibbs

Two legal firms are preparing a class action lawsuit that is expected to be the country's biggest environmental claim.

North South Environmental Law in Auckland, assisted by Holland Beckett Lawyers (HOBEC) in Tauranga, has identified 150 claimants affected by the Rena grounding - and expects to add more in coming weeks.

The claimants, all business owners, will become part of a joint lawsuit to bring proceedings against Greece-based Rena owner Daina Shipping Co.

Individual claims from Bay businesses currently range between $20,000 and $250,000.

The class action is understood to be the biggest negligence-based environmental claim in New Zealand, only outdone in size by class actions against finance and investment companies.

Legal representatives for Daina Shipping Co could not be contacted for comment.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

Robert Makgill, an expert in law of the sea and co-director of North South Environmental Law, was approached by a number of Bay of Plenty businesses after Rena hit Astrolabe Reef on October 5, 2011.

Mr Makgill told the Bay of Plenty Times that as his list of affected clients grew, he engaged local Tauranga firm HOBEC two months ago, to help with proceedings by being the "face" of the claim and helping assess claims against Daina Shipping Co.

HOBEC has now launched an advertising campaign in the Bay of Plenty Times to notify affected businesses of the pending court action.

"This story is not about the lawyers," Mr Makgill said.

"It's not about the experts. It's about the businesses. There's so many stories that people need to hear about. A lot of the claims are very strong and I think there's a good chance of success."

Mr Makgill is also preparing two separate claims against Daina Shipping Co for two iwi, one of which is Ngati Awa, the recognised statutory iwi for Motiti Island.

The class action had so far resulted in 150 businesses being assessed and many others were waiting to see whether they had a claim or not. Legal costs to businesses were still being worked through, but Mr Makgill said there was a view to keeping costs at zero or minimal.

"This is very much a public interest issue and something needed to be done," he said. "It's an action that represents the community."

Proceedings would not be lodged until HOBEC was satisfied all businesses that had lost money because of Rena had had an opportunity to take part.

"Don't be put off by thinking your claim is too small," HOBEC solicitor Jeremy Sparrow said. "Together the claims add up."

Mount Maunganui businessman Nevan Lancaster was the "genesis" for getting a large numbers of businesses to support class action when he featured in the Bay of Plenty Times in March.

Mr Lancaster runs kayak business Mount Cats and Yaks at Pilot Bay and said he was out of pocket $5000.

Papamoa Beach Top 10 Holiday Resort manager Rebecca Crosby said the business suffered significantly between October and April last year.

The Rena grounding resulted in takings being down 30 per cent between October and December. Labour Weekend was the business' worst Labour Weekend on record in years. Prior to October, takings had been up for the first time in three years, since the recession hit, she said.

"In the past 25 years since my parents have had the business, we've had (plenty of) cyclonic summers and income has not faltered."

Rena resulted in January takings at the holiday resort being down by 18 per cent and February. March and April were down too. May was the first month the park did the same takings as the year before. This coming summer would be a test, Ms Crosby said.

Tauranga crayfish operator and claimant Robert Mattock was forced to shift his business to Whakatane for six weeks after the Rena grounding and stop all exports of crayfish recovered from the exclusion zone.

Ten months on his business continues to suffer because boating exclusion zones, although condensed, remain in place.

He predicted they could still be there for another year to two years,and continue to affect the number of crayfish pots he and his crew of three were able to put down.

Mr Mattock, who had operated his business in the Bay for 35 years, would not disclose how much money he had lost but said it was "significant".

He has had to engage his accountant to prove lost earnings and said it made sense to put together a joint claim because of legal costs. "If we didn't do it joint, I don't think we'd stand much of a chance because of the sheer cost of getting it to court."

Mr Mattock said it was incredibly frustrating that while Rena's insurers were paying for the clean-up and recovery, businesses were having to go through legal proceedings to recover their losses.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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