Berrymans win court battle

BELATED VICTORY: Margaret and Keith Berryman say the battle has taken an unbelievable toll on their health.
BELATED VICTORY: Margaret and Keith Berryman say the battle has taken an unbelievable toll on their health.

They lost their farm and their health, but Keith and Margaret Berryman have won a 14-year legal battle with the army contesting responsibility for a fatal bridge collapse.

The army built the bridge leading to the Berrymans' King Country farm in 1986. Eight years later it collapsed, killing beekeeper Kenneth Richards as he crossed it.

In a judgment issued last night, Justice Jill Mallon quashed the 1997 finding by Taumarunui coroner Tim Scott that responsibility "must largely lie" with the Berrymans.

She also struck out Mr Scott's finding that there was no fault in the way the army built the bridge.

The judgment arises from the judicial review Justice Mallon heard against the army last September for telling the coroner "there was nothing in the entire construction of the bridge that contributed to the accident".

The army's own internal court of inquiry had earlier concluded that design and construction mistakes had caused it.

On hearing the news from his lawyer Rob Moodie, Mr Berryman repeated his insistence that "the bridge was never on farm property, it's part of a public road".

"All the army's evidence has been wiped from the coroner's court on this, and that is huge."

Family gathered last night at the Berrymans' Wanganui home, where the elation was apparent. Celebrating with a glass of sherry and with the phone ringing non-stop, Mrs Berryman said the news had barely sunk in.

Mr Berryman said any serious celebrations were on hold till all legal processes had been concluded.

Early next month the Court of Appeal will hear an application by the attorney-general on behalf of the army to strike out a $4.5 million misfeasance action brought by Dr Moodie on the Berrymans' behalf.

If that appeal is lost, the misfeasance case would be heard within the next 12 months.

But Dr Moodie said Justice Mallon's ruling made it clear it was time for all parties to meet and settle the Berrymans' claim.

Mr Berryman said: "The matter is not over till a wrong has been righted. You've got to realise that we had a debt-free sheep station and we lost dearly financially."

Years of legal battles, from an initial Occupational Safety and Health prosecution and the inquest, led to them selling the farm in 1999 at a time when rural prices were in a slump. The farm - their children's inheritance - is now worth millions.

Their health suffered as well. Mrs Berryman has had cancer, while her husband's ailments have included Paget's disease, which affects the bones.

"I've been living on drugs for 14 years to get sleep and I'm now having to take them every three hours to get through the day and should never have been put in this position in the first place," Mr Berryman said.

"It's been an unbelievable battle and taken an unbelievable toll on my health and that of my wife."

Neither the Defence Force nor Defence Minister Phil Goff would comment last night. The Defence Force was "studying the judgment closely," a spokesman said.

Mr Richards' former partner Mary-Anne Thomason would not comment either but has said in the past she believed the 1997 coroner's report blaming the Berrymans should be the end of the matter.

Dr Moodie said the latest judgment proved otherwise.

The couple had spoken to him of their relief about one particular aspect of the case.

"Margaret said just to be relieved of responsibility of Kenneth's death has been a tremendous burden off their shoulders."

Dr Moodie felt vindicated in his decision to publish a suppressed army report on the Internet. It claimed faulty army workmanship caused the collapse.

The court found Dr Moodie guilty of contempt for publishing it, fined him and suspended him from practising law for three months.

"That cost me $50,000, but it was money well spent, and I would do it again tomorrow, but I shouldn't have been placed in that position."

The Dominion Post