Thousands could join action to sue authorities over 2003 firestorm

Thousands could join action to sue authorities over 2003 firestorm

5 February 2009

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Australia — Thousands of people could join a class action against the ACT and NSW this year to seek damages for injuries and losses suffered in the January 2003 bushfires.

Four separate groups, representing at least 3000 people, filed claims last month.

But the groups have indicated they may wait out the 12-month grace period now they have filed claims, rather than take part in a trial set to start in July.

The trial at this stage involves about 110 Canberra litigants who suffered injuries and property losses in the January 18 firestorm.

The four new groups represent insurance companies which have already paid out on bushfire-related claims, but are seeking to recover through the court the amount paid out.

But lawyers for the ACT and the state of NSW, both defendants in the trial, say the groups should form part of the main trial in July, rather than observing the trial and acting later according to the outcome.

This could mean two or three further bushfire-related trials in the coming years.

In a directions hearing in the ACT Supreme Court yesterday, the Government lawyers’ position was that further trials would be an unacceptable waste of public resources, and time and money could be saved if all litigants were involved in the same proceedings.

A further directions hearing is expected to be set in the next three weeks to resolve the issue.

The trial has been set down for at least three months, but could last longer, as the issues involved are complex.

John Harris, SC, who is representing the Canberra litigants, said it was impossible to estimate how much money was being claimed, as individual litigants had varying claims. He said a number had suffered serious internal injuries and psychological harm, while others had not only lost their houses but also their businesses.

Meanwhile, the state of NSW will mount a challenge in the High Court next week against a Supreme Court decision that allows Brindabella land owner Wayne West to sue the NSW Government for property losses suffered in the 2003 fires.

The ACT Court of Appeal upheld in September a 2007 ruling by Justice Terry Connolly that cleared the way for Mr West and his wife, Lesley, to seek damages from NSW.

The Wests contend officers of the NSW Rural Fire Service and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service were negligent by choosing not to directly attack the McIntyre’s Hut fire after it was ignited by lightning in the Brindabella National Park on January 8, 2003.

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