Fire insurers sue to recoup costs

Fire insurers sue to recoup costs    

08 October 2011

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Australia — Flames and smoke across Roleystone and Kelmscott on the day of the blaze. Picture: Bohdan Warchomij Source: PerthNow

INSURERS have launched legal action against the policeman who accidentally sparked the Perth Hills firestorm.

A writ, lodged in Perth Supreme Court this week, names 56-year-old Sgt Robert James Stevens, Main Roads Commissioner Reece Waldock and the City of Armadale as the three defendants.

Almost 200 residents are named as plaintiffs on the writ, but it is the insurers, aiming to recoup the millions paid out to affected residents, who would pocket most of any payout ordered by the court. Some residents will also be pursuing payment for uninsured losses.

But many of the named residents were “shocked” to learn of the legal action this week, saying they did not wish Sgt Stevens any further anguish and applauding their council.

Mr Waldock and the City of Armadale are being sued for a breach of their “statutory duty”, believed to refer to failing to maintain street verges, bridges and fuel loads in the area.

Sgt Stevens has been named for his role in allegedly starting the blaze with sparks from an angle grinder he was using despite a total fire ban.

If negligence is proved in the case of Main Roads and the City of Armadale, it is taxpayers and ratepayers who could foot the cost of the trial and any payouts.

But Jill Axford, who had about $5000 damage to her Greendale Place home, said she was shocked to find out she was listed as a plaintiff. She said the City of Armadale had done a great job.

Ms Axford also said Sgt Stevens had made an unfortunate mistake, but should be allowed to move on.

“He’s suffered enough already without this,” she said.

Fellow resident Sharyn Clements, who lives on Ashley Drive, Kelmscott, said Sgt Stevens’ action wasn’t deliberate and the community just wanted to move on. Her house had about $30,000 damage.

Allen Fairess, who lives on Merilee Tce, Kelmscott, said he was surprised to find out that he was listed as a plaintiff. Mr Fairess said he considered the matter “done and dusted” and held no ill feelings towards Sgt Stevens.

“I don’t want to see him punished any further,” he said.

The writ did not mention a dollar figure, but legal sources said the lawsuit was likely to run into tens of millions of dollars.

This week, Mr Waldock said Main Roads would “vigorously defend” any claims of negligence, while City of Armadale chief executive Ray Tame said the matter was in the hands of the council’s insurers and solicitors.

When asked if the city had failed to protect residents by inadequately maintaining street verges he said: “Absolutely not”.

But an independent report by former Australian Federal Police chief Mick Keelty into the Perth Hills fires criticised the City of Armadale for its lack of action on fuel loads and maintenance of its street verges.

The report found there was an apparent lack of understanding by the City of Armadale of its legislative responsibilities.

The Keelty Report also found that Main Roads should undertake more frequent examinations of its bridges located in bushfire-prone areas.

The Buckingham Bridge was the first bit of key infrastructure to be lost during the fire. The report warned the loss of the bridge could have been disastrous and cost lives.

Sgt Stevens, who pleaded not guilty before a charge of carrying out an act which caused or was likely to cause fire was dropped last month, declined to comment.

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