The South Australia government has dropped a bizarre $900,000 lawsuit against a Noosa boat builder – after finding out its SES skipper was not driving it properly.
The South Australia government has dropped a bizarre $900,000 lawsuit against a Noosa boat builder – after finding out its SES skipper was not driving it properly.

$900k state lawsuit against boat builder sinks

The State Government has dropped a $900,000 lawsuit against a respected Queensland boat builder it alleged had supplied a faulty rescue craft to the SES - after learning that operator error was responsible for its poor performance.

In an astonishing turnabout, government lawyers agreed the boat performed to specification after an extensive sea trial in which it was discovered the SES volunteer who skippered the boat was operating it incorrectly. But despite the Crown Solicitor's Office withdrawing the District Court lawsuit, Noosa Cat Pty Ltd owner Wayne Hennig is out of pocket by $101,700 in legal fees it has cost him to defend the claim.

"I am both angry and frustrated about it," Mr Hennig said when contacted by The Advertiser. "They started a groundless action, it was actually false, and after I proved it, now they just walk away."

Mr Hennig, 65, said he had only agreed to pay his own costs to end the costly dispute, but had insisted the wording in the deed of settlement made it clear the boat, the Sea Angel, which was used by the Port Pirie SES, was fit for purpose. He said Crown lawyers had argued about the wording until he said he would proceed if that was not included. But they still procrastinated for two years over the precise wording of the deed, costing Mr Hennig even more in legal fees.

"Bizarrely, they then agreed to the double negative wording in the deed that stated the boat was 'not not fit for service'," Mr Hennig said.

The Sea Angel at Port Pirie.
The Sea Angel at Port Pirie.

The Government launched the District Court action in 2016, claiming $885,237 from Noosa Cat - the cost of the patrol vessel and three trailers - plus damages and legal costs.

The Sea Angel - a 7.8m fibreglass patrol vessel powered by two 225-horsepower outboard motors - was delivered to the Port Pirie SES in 2005 at a cost of $259,381. Restrictions were put on its use in 2009 after complaints by the volunteer skipper and crew about its stability at speeds higher than the contract speed.

District Court documents revealed the Transport Department imposed safety conditions on the Sea Angel's use, including that it not be used in winds exceeding 25 knots, in waves more than 1.5m high or in waters more than 15 nautical miles from land. The contract had specified that the twin-hulled boat be operational in adverse conditions in ocean waters up to 30 nautical miles offshore while carrying a full load of fuel and a crew of six at a maximum continuous speed of 28 knots.

The statement of claim alleged the boat could not safely operate to those specifications and that SES personnel "experienced unstable characteristics when operating the vessel in relatively flat or calm water" and they had "continued to occur from time to time when the vessel is used".

Mr Hennig said he was astonished the claim only came after the boat had been used for 11 years and having received an email from a senior skipper in 2011 stating that the boat performed perfectly.

"It has been years of frustration, worry and anger because I knew there was nothing wrong with the boat," he said. "It has taken an enormous toll on myself and my family.

Noosa Cats managing director Wayne Hennig at his Noosaville boat building factory.
Noosa Cats managing director Wayne Hennig at his Noosaville boat building factory.

"The boat has a heritage unequalled to any other in Australia and is in use by dozens of police, rescue and maritime services around the country without complaint.

"These guys just tried to make it out to be unstable through lack of training in how to drive it properly."

Mr Hennig's comprehensive sea trial report, which has been obtained by The Advertiser, states that when he inspected the boat before the trial, he found 20 defects - many caused by poor maintenance - and several modifications that included mounting a heavy anchor winch on its bow and a heavy liferaft on its cabin roof that altered its stability.

Despite the modifications, the vessel still performed perfectly with the additional weight added to the topside.

The report details how Mr Hennig watched the skipper of the boat driving it and repeatedly manipulating power trim that altered its angle in the water when at speed.

This action caused the boat to lean from chine to chine as it responded from the altered trim setting.

It details how Mr Hennig told the skipper to stop manipulating the power trim and the boat then ran straight and level.

Mr Hennig then drove the boat for some time and put it through many tests, during which it performed flawlessly.

It states that following the test, a discussion was held between Mr Hennig, an SES commander and the naval architect engaged by the SES, and it was agreed there was nothing wrong with the boat.

"It is patently obvious the SES administration are not providing the quality and level of training that is required for these volunteers to competently operate this type of vessels," the report's summary states.

"It is my personal opinion that these volunteers, who give up their personal time to assist in emergencies, should be given far better support and recognition for their efforts.

"It is recommended that due to the numerous defects and degradation evident on this vessel that the SES review their administrative procedures and then review their maintenance and servicing methods."

Noosa Cat has received no apology from the Government over the matter.

Originally published as $900k state lawsuit against SES boat builder sinks