SA Govt urged to settle bushfire claims out of court

SA Govt urged to settle bushfire claims out of court

14 February 2008

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Australia — Survivors of the Eyre bushfires in South Australia three years ago have launched a class action for compensation. But if experience is anything to go by, they could be waiting a long time for any payout.

This Saturday will be the 25th anniversary of the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires which killed 75 people and burnt half a million hectares of property and bushland in Victoria and South Australia.

It took more than 10 years for survivors of those fires to finalise their compensation claims.

Adelaide psychiatrist and trauma expert, Professor Sandy McFarlane, is urging the South Australian Government to settle the Eyre Peninsula claims out of court to prevent years of legal wrangling that only further traumatises bushfire victims.

A dozen people have filed a class action in the South Australian Supreme Court seeking compensation for the ferocious bushfires that swept through the Eyre Peninsula on January 11, 2005.

Nine people died that day in the firestorm, despite the Country Fire Service declaring that morning that the fire was under control.

Adelaide psychiatrist Professor Sandy McFarlane says while survivors have a right to seek recompense for their losses, legal proceedings do not always provide it.

A dozen people have filed a class action seeking compensation for the ferocious bushfires that swept through the Eyre Peninsula in January 2005.

“The problem is it goes for far longer than people ever anticipate,” he said.

“There’s a degree of personal attack often on the litigants, which they never anticipate, because after all they’re not the people who are in the wrong.

“It’s the defendant who is in the wrong, but they are the ones whose credit is constantly being judged.”

Professor McFarlane says the victims of the fires 25 years ago spent more than a decade seeking compensation through the courts, and felt betrayed by the legal process.

“I saw around 100 people who were involved in suing the Electricity Trust in those days,” he said.

“One of the first things we asked people is, having got to the end of the process, knowing what they did at that point, would they do it again? 90 per cent of people said no.”

Hopes for settlement

The coronial inquest into the Eyre Peninsula bushfires found that emergency services made a number of crucial errors, which has given the survivors and their families some basis for their legal battle for compensation.

A spokeswoman for SA Emergency Services Minister Carmel Zollo says the Government respects the rights of people to pursue their common law rights, and is not seeking to settle the compensation claims out of court.

The lawyer representing the class action is Peter Humphries.

He says he is still open to a settlement with the State Government.

“I think it’s in everyone’s best interest always to settle claims if they can,” he said.

“It avoids the protracted nature of proceedings, and of course, the very real trauma of a trial which most people don’t enjoy the experience of.”

Professor McFarlane says he hopes for the sake of those who survived the bushfires that they are spared the trauma of lengthy court action.

He says the State Government should look at alternatives, especially in this case where victims are already disadvantaged.

“I think this is a real opportunity for leadership,” he said.

“The legal process is extremely expensive and inefficient. If the system is doing what it should do, that money should be going to the victims, not to support the legal process.”

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