Eleventh hour settlement after legal action dropped
THE Office of Environment and Heritage has dropped almost two years of legal action against a Coffs Harbour resident who described the ordeal as "absolute hell".
In October 2013, the OEH charged Vicki Moras for harming vegetation during a bushfire safety clean-up around the villa where she lived and volunteered.
Ms Moras had been found not guilty in the local court in February this year, but the OEH lodged an appeal against the ruling in the Land and Environment Court.
Defence lawyers argued Ms Moras had volunteered for the owners' corporation, which had organised the clean-up, and the department was therefore pursuing the wrong person.
But days before the appeal was scheduled to be heard, the OEH dropped the legal action, agreeing to a partial costs settlement.
Slater and Gordon commercial litigation lawyer Andy Munro, who represented Ms Moras, described the case as "baffling".
"Never before has there been a case in Australia where a volunteer on an executive committee has been sued for the conduct of an owners' corporation," Mr Munro said.
"The owners' corporation is its own legal entity - it's baffling as to why the OEH decided to pursue Ms Moras for three years of incredibly stressful legal action."
He said the OEH had been provided with "plenty of opportunities" to withdraw before now.
"They waited until the last minute and now have to pay some of Ms Moras' costs, as well as those they incurred themselves," he said.
Ms Moras said her life had been "absolute hell" for three years.
"It felt like they were on a mission to make someone pay for the damage and they chose me for some reason," Ms Moras said.
An OEH spokesman said the department had disagreed with the magistrate's decision in the Local Court, as a verdict was reached before the prosecution could call witnesses to provide evidence.
"OEH disagrees with the decision and does not accept that the wrong person was prosecuted," the spokesman said.
"OEH considered given the amount of resources already expended by both parties, the likely protracted resolution of the proceedings and the scale of the clearing it was not appropriate to continue the appeal and prosecution."