Mining giant Adani has revealed it was seeking to claim more than $600m in damages from an environmental activist, a figure it has now dropped from its civil case against Ben Pennings.
Adani claims Pennings, as the national spokesperson of the group Galilee Blockade, sought to disrupt the operations of the Carmichael coalmine, its suppliers and contractors.
Adani had struck out the $600m figure from its statement of claim earlier this month, leaving the damages sought in the amended document at $86,579, which meant Pennings could seek to have the case thrown out of Queensland’s supreme court and heard instead in a lower – and less costly – tier of the judicial system.
That changed late on Thursday, on the eve of a directions hearing to set a trial date, when Adani’s lawyers notified Pennings of previously unquantified damages from its having to conduct a second tender process after its drilling contractor Downer withdrew.
Adani now claims the tender to replace Downer cost it more than $17m.
Adani alleges Pennings “orchestrated a sustained campaign” against the Carmichael project, in which he solicited confidential information about the construction process and used it to harass contractors.
It unsuccessfully sought to conduct an unannounced search of the activist’s family home and its lawyers commissioned a private investigator to take covert photographs of Pennings walking his nine-year-old daughter to primary school, surveil his wife, trawl her Facebook page and follow her to work.
The barrister representing the mining company, Dominic Pyle, told the court on Friday his client had dropped the “millions of dollars” claim “to save time, energy and effort”.
Adani told the Guardian the damages had been downgraded so as to speed up proceedings.
“We chose to nominate an amount of damages so the case can proceed to trial without the unnecessary delay to establish a greater sum we are unlikely to ever recover,” a spokesperson said.
“Her Honour Justice Brown accepted this approach.”
Pyle acknowledged there was currently little evidence to support the $17m figure, but told the court the “particulars can be improved upon and they will be improved upon” once expert evidence was introduced into the proceedings.
But the senior counsel representing Pennings, Dan O’Gorman, foreshadowed “severe doubts” about the figure, given Adani’s history of claims about “damages and particulars of damages”.
Pennings described the last few weeks as a “rollercoaster of emotions”.
“Adani firstly dropped the massive damages claim it used in their second attempt to raid my family home, hiring investigators to follow my wife and kids around in the process,” he said. “The afternoon before the hearing I’m told Adani wants me to pay them $17m instead. Then in court I find out they ultimately believe I cost them $600m.”
At stake for Pennings is his family home, including a dedicated space designed to accommodate the needs of his child with a disability.
Pennings told the Guardian it was “hard to admit publicly” that the Adani case has sent him “spiralling in and out of anxiety and depression”, sometimes making him physically ill.
“Telling my dear mum will cause her even more stress,” he said.
“But a case like this affects our democracy and people deserve to know the impacts of extended litigation against a peaceful protester. Despite almost two years of anxiety, I’m still determined to win the case on behalf of all Australians.”
A review date for the case is set for 1 August, with Brown raising her concerns about the “enormous amount of time” spent on the particulars and calling on both parties to help her set a date for a hearing and have the case “resolved one way or the other”.
“It does seem that a lot of time and money has been wasted on the interlocutory steps rather than just getting on with it,” she said.