Power company likely to spread bushfire blame

Power company likely to spread bushfire blame

20 June 2010

published by www.theage.com.au

Australia — THE power company being sued by victims of the Black Saturday bushfires is expected to spread the blame to the CFA and the state government in an attempt to reduce its potentially massive legal liability.

Senior government sources told The Sunday Age there was a ”real chance” that Singapore-owned power distributor SP AusNet would join government agencies as co-defendants to the hundreds-of-millions of dollars class action related to the Kinglake fire.

This could mean taxpayers’ money could be paid out to victims, with SP AusNet arguing in the Supreme Court that CFA warnings and firefighting was inadequate, and that the government’s backburning program, or planning policies, made the fire’s devastation worse.

The maintenance company Utility Asset Management, whose worker allegedly failed to identify a fault in the crucial line during an inspection a year before the fire, is also likely to be in the firing line.

Plaintiff lawyer Bernard Murphy of Maurice Blackburn agreed that SP AusNet would ”seek to push off their liability for this very avoidable tragedy to others”.

Mr Murphy filed a detailed statement of claim in the Supreme Court class action on Friday, which alleged that SP AusNet had failed to adequately maintain the line, and that the installation of a $10 vibration dampener might have saved 119 lives.

SP AusNet managing director Nino Ficca has made no comment about the possibility of joining other parties to the legal action. The company was waiting until the outcome of the royal commission before announc- ing any legal moves, he said.

But in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Age, Mr Ficca insisted he was proud of the way his company maintained its networks, and said Victoria did not need, nor could it pay for, ”gold-plated” electricity infrastructure.

Asked if he had any regrets about the state of the power line and its maintenance in the lead-up to Black Saturday, Mr Ficca said: ”I’m comfortable. Our networks, how we run them, is not anything other than what is best practice around the place.”

Asked if he would apologise to the victims, he declined, saying: ”As far as I’m concerned, and this business [SP AusNet] is concerned, those matters are before the royal commission … we’re waiting for what those findings will be … to see what happens out of that.”

Power lines allegedly caused five of the 12 major fires on February 7, 2009, with SP AusNet responsible for two of the lines and Powercor the other three.

Police and electricity experts gave evidence in the royal commission, and counsel assisting agreed, that the Kilmore East fire began at the foot of an SP AusNet power pole because a thin and weakened wire – one of the longest single spans in the state – snapped and fell to the ground in high wind at about 11.45am on Black Saturday.

Lawyers for the commission said the failure was caused partly by a wrongly fitted part, and partly by the lack of a dampener to reduce wind vibration.

But Mr Ficca would not concede anything.

”To be explicit about cause is not something that we can talk about today … the body that has the best information about that is the royal commission at the moment.”

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