The Supreme Court has ordered the return of a tractor that has been at the centre of a dispute involving a Catholic priest.
Lord Chief Justice Paulsen made the order after a trial in which he heard evidence concerning the purchase of a Massey Ferguson tractor in New Zealand to help out the family of a Catholic priest in Tonga.
In his judgement, Lord Chief Justice Paulsen said the Massey Ferguson 265 tractor was bought in New Zealand in August 2013. It was paid for by Vilisoni Paul Hemaloto and sent to Tonga for Ma’asi Tauelangi to cultivate his land.
In February 2015 Vilisoni asked to use the tractor. Ma’asi gave him permission to do so but since then Vilisoni has refused to return the tractor and has registered it in his own name.
The decision about who owned the tractor turned on whether it was given as a gift with no strings attached, or whether it had been given conditionally.
Ma’asi claimed that the tractor was a gift and sought the return of the tractor and a direction that it be registered in his name and court costs awarded to him.
Vilisoni denied that the tractor was a gift. While it was bought for Ma’asi, he claimed they had agreed that Ma’asi would send him containers of food to reimburse him for the purchase price.
He said he had kept the tractor because the containers of food were never sent. Vilisoni filed a counterclaim seeking a declaration that he owned the tractor.
At the time the tractor was bought, Vilisoni and his wife, Malia Hemaloto were living in New Zealand. They returned to Tonga in in 2015 and were members of Fr ‘Ofa Tauelangi Tauelangi’s congregation.
At some stage, Vilisoni and Malia became aware that Fr Tauelangi’s family in Tonga needed financial assistance and expressed their general willingness to help the priest and his family, Lord Chief Justice Paulsen said.
On or about July 24, 2013, Ma’asi travelled from Tonga to New Zealand to buy a tractor and take it back to Tonga. He told the court he had previously discussed this with his brother as a way to generate food and an income for his family in Tonga. He had no money for a tractor and was entirely dependent on Fr Tauelangi to buy the machine.
Fr Tauelangi told Vilisoni his brother was a hard worker and needed a tractor to grow crops to feed his family and sell the surplus in Tonga.
An initial plan to buy a Leyland tractor from Trademe came to nothing.
Vilisoni told the court that he, Fr Tauelangi and Ma’asi agreed that he would buy a tractor for Ma’asi in return for the shipment of containers of crops back to Vilisoni in New Zealand in late 2014.
“It is not clear how many containers were to be sent to Vilisoni, who seemed to believe that there would be one or two containers which he would sell, keeping enough of the proceeds to reimburse himself for the purchase price of the tractor and send the remaining funds back to Fr Tauelangi’s family,” the judge said.
Both Ma’asi and Tauelangi denied there had been any discussion or agreement regarding containers of crops.
On August 30, 2013, Vilisoni , Ma’asi and Fr Tauelangi went to the Tractor Centre at Pukekohe where they found the Massey Ferguson tractor. Vilisoni paid NZ$15,000 for the machine and new tyres for NZ$1,350.
The tractor was sent to Tonga in a container provided by Maika Haupeakui, an uncle of Ma’asi and Father Tauelangi, which arrived in Nuku’alofa on November 4, 2013.
Vilisoni said he returned to Tonga several times between November 2013 and his relocation to Tonga in 2015. He told the court that each time he visited Ma’asi and saw the tractor had been used only to transport material to Ma’asi’s property,but had not been used to cultivate any land or grow crops.
When he asked Ma’asi about this, Ma’asi responded that he did not have the necessary ploughing equipment to use the tractor to cultivate land. Vilisoni claimed that on one of these occasions he asked Ma’asi about the containers of crops and when he would receive them. In response, Ma’asi asked for more money so he could clear trees on his property.
In early 2015, Vilisoni and Malia relocated to Ma’ufanga. On or about February 16, 2015, Vilisoni went to Ma’asi’s house to ask if he could borrow the tractor to mow lawns on the property of the Noble Fakafanua. Vilisoni did not return the tractor and registered it in his name. Ma’asi said Vilisoni ignored his repeated requests for the return the machine.
During the trial, Vilisoni told the court that after he took hold of the tractor he bought ploughing equipment. He had been able to cultivate 40 acres and grow enough cassava to send a container to Australia and sell food at a market in Tonga each day. He employed three workers and paid them with the income generated by the use of the tractor.
In his summing up, Lord Chief Justice Paulsen said:
“Of particular importance is Vilisoni’s evidence that if he had not received the containers of food, but had seen that the tractor was being used as he had imagined, he would not have taken the action he did.
“This statement accords with my overall impression of Vilisoni and assessment of his motivation for purchasing the tractor.
“Vilisoni sought to assist Fr Tauelangi and understood that purchasing a tractor for his brother would relieve many of the pressures placed on him by his family in Tonga. The receipt of containers of food grown using the tractor was not a condition of that.”
As a result, he found that the tractor had been gifted by Vilisoni to Ma’asi.
He ordered Vilisoni to return the tractor to Ma’asi within 14 days and to provide for a transfer or registration of ownership of the tractor in Ma’asi’s name.
The main points
- The Supreme Court has ordered the return of a tractor that has been at the centre of a dispute involving a Catholic priest.
- Lord Chief Justice Paulsen made the order after a trial in which he heard evidence concerning the purchase of a Massey Ferguson tractor in New Zealand to help out the family of a Catholic priest in Tonga.
- The decision about who owned the tractor turned on whether it was given as a gift with no strings attached, or whether it had been given conditionally.
- The judge ordered the tractor be returned within 14 days.