Black Saturday damages appeal dismissed

Black Saturday damages appeal dismissed

09 May 2012

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Australia — A VICTORIAN farmer has survived a challenge by an international power company which appealed against a court decision over its role in causing a major Black Saturday bushfire.

Powercor, which is responsible for much of Victoria’s electricity distribution infrastructure, appealed against a ruling that it had to compensate Laurie Thomas for fire damage to fixtures on his farm.

The company, whose fallen power lines sparked one of the 2009 fires near Horsham, argued that it should not pay because the damage had been repaired by Mr Thomas himself and other volunteer workers.

Mr Thomas brought the initial action against Powercor on behalf of victims of the Horsham fire.

The matter went to trial in the Victorian Supreme Court, where victims won compensation following the settlement of the class action in October.

The subsequent agreement required Powercor to pay 55 per cent of each claimant’s losses, plus penalty interest, estimated to be more than 10 per cent.

The fire, sparked by a falling power line that ignited grass, tore through 2500 hectares and destroyed 13 homes, farm buildings, livestock and other structures over eight hours on February 7, 2009.

Powercor questioned whether Mr Thomas should be compensated for fire damage to farm fixtures, if they had been repaired by himself or volunteers, and if so, on what basis those damages should be assessed.

At trial, Justice Jack Forrest said the fact the fixtures had been repaired by Mr Thomas or volunteers did not preclude him from claiming for the damage.

He ordered that the primary measure of damages was the commercial cost of reinstatement or repair of the fixtures destroyed.

The company appealed, claiming the judge should have determined that claims for labour should not have been allowed where Mr Thomas or volunteers did the work themselves.

In the Court of Appeal today, Justices Marilyn Warren, Bernard Bongiorno and Robert Osborn dismissed the appeal and ordered Powercor to pay Mr Thomas’ costs.

The judgment will affect settlements to similar class actions by other Black Saturday victims, including residents of Beechworth and Coleraine.

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