My two-year battle to clear my name in £91m lawsuit
PUBLISHED: 07:03 01 December 2010
The scrap metal entrepreneur at the centre of a £91m lawsuit has spoken of his delight after clearing his name in a David and Goliath battle against waste giant SITA UK.
Andre Serruys faced a nightmare scenario when his assets were frozen without warning following allegations of fraud in May 2008, which were withdrawn by SITA when the case settled out of court last week.
The case related to the sale of Mr Serruys’ Lenwade-based scrap metal business Easco to SITA in May 2007.
SITA said the business was “replete with dishonest practices” and “effectively worthless” - a claim the defendants strenuously denied and argued should never have been brought during five weeks of proceedings in the High Court.
Mr Serruys, who lives in Stanfield Hall, near Wymondham, and his business partner Richard Cubitt, were forced to fund a hugely costly legal defence against SITA UK, part of French-owned water and waste management conglomerate Suez Environnement, which has annual sales in excess of 12bn euros (£10bn).
The legal battle took two-and-a-half years, and while he was allowed to fund a legal defence, the freezing order meant Mr Serruys needed SITA’s permission to invest money in his businesses until the order was finally lifted last week.
Mr Serruys said the order had cost him tens of millions of pounds in lost revenues, with key projects put on hold or delayed.
They include a planned redevelopment of the Deal Ground, a 50-plus acre site in the south of Norwich, an overhaul of the Oasis Sports and Leisure Club in Thorpe St Andrew and proposals for the former Lakenham Sports and Leisure Centre site in Cricket Ground Road, Lakenham.
Mr Serruys said: “We can’t talk about the detail of the outcome, which is confidential. We can say we are delighted with the outcome. But what a waste of two-and-a-half years.
“The fraud claims have been completely withdrawn, they completely fell away.”
He said he was in the Lenwade office of his company, SPC, early one morning in May 2008 when he was served the papers, adding: “The only thing you can do faced with allegations that you know are not true is to engage the very best legal team you can, at huge expense. It’s the injustice of justice.
“You can’t engage two-bit lawyers to go up against these guys as they are just going to eat you alive.”
The defence, led by Rachel Higgs, partner at Mills & Reeve, involved forensically piecing together evidence to counter each of the claims.
The complexity of the case required legal teams in Mills & Reeve’s Norwich and Cambridge offices and a barristers in London.
About 60 witnesses were called to give evidence for the defendants, and 60,000 documents had to be scrutinized.
SITA’s legal costs are believed to run to considerably more than £7m, the strength of which Mr Serruys said the defendants had to “try and match”.
With the case finally over, Mr Serruys said he was now trying to unpick the damage to his reputation the case had caused, and take forward some of the projects which had been put on hold, with a number of planning applications due to be submitted in the coming weeks.
And he said he was “overwhelmed” by the support of local people and business associates, who had sent more than 100 texts of congratulations after the case settled.
“Now we are repairing ourselves a little bit, but at the same time we have got our foot to the floor.
“We really have had tremendous support all along the way in face of adversity.
“Now we need to move on, move forward to a successful future.
“We can’t buy back the time we have lost. That’s gone forever.
“There are tremendous opportunities out there that we haven’t been able to take advantage of because of the freezing order.”
A statement agreed by the two parties following the settlement last week said: “SITA and Mr Andre Serruys have today resolved their dispute over the sale of the Easco Group in 2007.
“The terms of settlement of the breach of warranty claim are confidential, but all allegations of fraud against Mr Serruys are withdrawn.”