Slater & Gordon and Maurice Blackburn have filed separate class actions against Nufarm Limited.
Both class actions relate to official statements made by Nufarm with regard to its expected profits, with the plaintiff law firms accusing the agricultural company of breaching continuous disclosure obligations and engaging in misleading conduct.
On 2 March 2010, Nufarm managing director Doug Rathbone announced a $40 million loss for the first half of its 2010 financial trading year, blaming lower glyphosate prices, but he added that the company should rebound in the second half of 2010 and generate a headline profit of between $120 and $140 million.
However, on 14 July, the company announced that it expected to generate a net operating profit of between $55 and $65 million. Nufarm blamed poor climatic conditions in Europe and North America for dampening demand for crop protection products.
"When Nufarm announced its profit downgrade in July last year, we were immediately approached by people who were concerned by its severity," Slater & Gordon practice group head Ben Phi, who is leading his firm's team on the class action, told Lawyers Weekly. "It's on that basis that we announced we would be investigating those potential claims."
After Nufarm's announcement in July, its shares went into freefall, dropping by 38 per cent in less than one week.
In early December, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) fined Nufarm $66,000 for an alleged failure to comply with continuous disclosure obligations. Nufarm did not provide an admission of guilt by paying the fine.
"By 2 March 2010, we have a reasonable basis to allege that Nufarm knew or ought to have known that the assumptions it was making would not be borne out," Phi said. While Slaters' class action is open to investors who acquired Nufarm shares between 2 March and 31 August 2010, Maurice Blackburn's class action is open to investors who purchased shares in the company between 28 September 2009 and 28 August 2010.
The Maurice Blackburn class action alleges that Nufarm engaged in misleading conduct for the duration of this period.
"We believe that the expanded claim we filed on 24 December [but not served on Nufarm until 17 January] deals with problems that were systematic at Nufarm from before 2 March 2010," Maurice Blackburn senior associate Jason Geisker told Lawyers Weekly.
Geisker is running the class action with Ben Slade, a principal of the firm who is based in Sydney.
Both Slade and Geisker were involved with a class action against the grains exporter AWB that was settled for $39.5 million in February last year.
Litigation funders Comprehensive Legal Funding are involved in the Slaters class action, while the Maurice Blackburn action is being funded by International Litigation Funding Partners.
Maurice Blackburn is also running the class action on a no-win no-fee basis.
Nufarm has announced that it will defend the actions vigorously. Arnold Bloch Leibler, who acted for Nufarm on the refinancing of its debt in December, has been retained by the company to also advise it on the class actions.
The Slaters class action is due for a directions hearing before Justice Finkelstein in the Federal Court in Melbourne on 15 February, while Maurice Blackburn's action is due for a directions hearing before Justice Emmett in Sydney on 11 March.
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