By KATH GANNAWAY
SURVIVORS of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires are part of a $495 million class action settlement announced today.
The settlement relates to the Kilmore-East Kinglake fire that affected more than 30 communities including Steels Creek, Toolangi, Christmas Hills, Yarra Glen and Tarrawarra.
The action mounted by Lawyers Maurice Blackburn, if approved by the Supreme Court, will be the largest class action settlement in Australian legal history, covering more than 10,000 claims for personal injury and property losses on behalf of more than 5000 people.
The settlement, agreed to without admission of liability, will see power provider SP Ausnet contribute $378,574,121, maintenance contractor Utility Services Group $12,500,000 and government parties including Victoria Police, CFA and DSE $103,592,546.
Carol Matthews whose son Sam died in the fire, was the lead plaintiff, agreeing to the settlement on behalf of the 5000 people who signed on to the action.
She said there was a sense of justice in the outcome.
Malcolm Calder and Dorothy Barber are Steels Creek residents who are part of the class action.
Mrs Barber lost her home and said it had been a struggle in many ways.
“I know people who have lost a lot more than we lost … family members, and that’s always been a struggle for me as well. I’m happy that this part is finished, that they have settled and it didn’t have to go to a judgement,” she said.
“If people can get a degree of comfort back in their life, it’s fantastic,” she said.
She praised the courage of Mrs Matthews but said she believe she should not have had to take on the responsibility. “I nearly didn’t join it (the class action) because I thought it should have been an action taken in the broader public interest, and should have been something that set a precedent for events such as this,” she said.
Mr Calder fought and saved his home, but like so many in Steels Creek where 11 people lost their lives, lost friends and neighbours.
He said he thought it was important to have it acknowledged that there were faults in the system and that the organisations who were responsible can be seen to be to some extent at fault.
“I think that’s going to help a lot of people who feel that things could have been different, and I suppose it explains a little bit how the system can fail.”
He said while money will never make up for the tragedy and loss, it may help some people put their places in order.
“For many people getting fences right and organising their properties has been important and it’s been done at a financial cost.
“I think this may help people feel that they are back to somewhere near where they would have been,” he said.
The class action has been a marathon with the 16-month trial beginning in March 2013 in the Melbourne Supreme Court.
The settlement was reached one month after the trial concluded with a judgement more than six months away.
Maurice Blackburn principal Andrew Watson said the case had been the hardest fought, longest and most difficult his team had run.
“No amount of money will replace what this fire took from those who had so much taken away from them, but if approved, today’s settlement will provide significant compensation for their losses and some long-overdue justice for people who have suffered great adversity,” he said.
Susan Taylor, general counsel and company secretary with SP AusNet, said the settlement was made without admission by any of the parties.
“SP AusNet sought to conduct its defence in a manner to avoid adding to the group members’ pain, while necessarily seeking to demonstrate that SP AusNet managed its network competently and efficiently, and in the interests of those who rely on electricity, and the community generally,” she said.
She said the company held to its position that the conductor that broke and started the fire was damaged by lightning, compromising its fail-safety design in a way that was undetectable at the time.
She extended the company’s sympathy to those who had suffered losses.
Maurice Blackburn said the settlement needed to be approved after which the 10,000 plus claims will need to be assessed.
They estimated it would take between 12 and 18 months before any money is distributed.