It would be fair to say that, in a dispute between a farmer and a utility company, the latter is likely to have the upper financial hand and thus pursue a settlement that accords with their own version of events. However, this supposition was overturned in a recent case where a judge found for the farmer who had claimed for damage done to a field that prevented a potato crop from being planted.
This case is a good example how a judge is likely to approach a claim made in good faith, and why it has every chance of prevailing if the claimant is seen as ‘an honest and essentially reliable witness’ even if, as in this case, the documentary evidence is scant. In a nutshell, Mr Kirby, who farmed near Blackpool, claimed for damages against Electricity Northwest because the latter’s contractors, while replacing an electricity cable, had damaged a field he rented to such an extent that he was unable to plant his potato crop.
The defendant maintained that as there was neither documentary evidence that Mr Kirby was planning to plant a crop of potatoes nor a written agreement with a local potato dealer, who Mr Kirby knew well and with whom he had dealt with for many years, to take the harvested crop, there was no intention to cultivate the field. Indeed, the defendant went as far to claim that Mr Kirby deliberately failed to disclose any documents because had he done so, they would have proved he was in the wrong.
The judge took a pragmatic view: after exploring three plausible explanations for the inconsistencies in Mr Kirby’s evidence and hearing from both Mr Kirby and various witnesses, including Mr Bradley the potato dealer, he decided in Mr Kirby’s favour. He concluded that Mr Kirby’s informal approach to his business affairs did not undermine his case, despite the defendant’s accusation that he was ‘making it up as you go’, noting that he “knows his business extremely well but is not at all good at creating or retaining paper records…”.
Although the importance of documenting agreements and other business arrangements is a drum we lawyers regularly bang, it will bring some comfort to many farmers who do know their business inside out but have neither the time nor inclination to record every element of their operation. In this case, the claimant was seen as honest, reliable, and very experienced and this, on the balance of probabilities, guided the judge to take the side of David in his contest with Goliath.