Farmers may be able to claim compensation for the losses they incur as a result of the movement ban, according to lawyers.
Christopher Findley, partner at London-based Bircham Dyson Bell, said the company was already setting up setting up – with the main farming organisations – a claims advice service for livestock farmers.
Mr Findley told Farmers Weekly that if it was proven that there was a “manmade” source of the outbreak there could be a strong claim against the originator for losses caused to the farming industry by the movement ban.
Farmers could team up and take a ‘class action’ the body ultimately found to be responsible.
“There is little difference between this escape and liability and some leakage from Sellafield or an oil tanker crashing off the coast,” he said. “The report following the 2001 outbreak recommended that in future there should be an immediate movement ban. So for anyone holding this kind of material, the ban and its consequences to livestock farmers were all foreseeable.”
Mr Findley said that any claim would have to be for re-imbursement of direct losses by livestock farmers and it would not be a “compensation gravy train”. Farmers would have to show records of the losses and prove the extra costs they had faced.
Alan Bannister, a partner at Vizards Wyeth law firm, pointed out that auctioneers were not likely to get compensation because of a legal precedent set over 50 years ago after an almost identical incident at Pirbright.
“The outcome of the case (Weller & Co –v- Foot and Mouth Disease Research Institute) was decided against the auctioneers because they had not suffered a direct loss, and the legal implications would be decided in the same way today.
“In this case the defendants were not liable in negligence, because their duty to take care to avoid the escape of the virus was due to the foreseeable fact that the virus might infect cattle in the neighbourhood.
“The duty was owed to the owners of cattle and not to a third party such as the auctioneers who had suffered economic and not direct loss or damage.”
Julie Robinson, chief legal adviser for the NFU, said all the union’s efforts were going into controlling and eradicating the disease.
“But of course, we are concerned about members’ losses and the question of compensation is a matter we are looking into.”