Australia — A $60 MILLION class action lawsuit over the deadly 2005 Eyre Peninsula bushfires has settled out of court for $8 million in a compromise deal.
Eyre Peninsula graziers are likely to receive only portions of that figure, however, because the settlement must also cover eight years’ worth of lawyers’ bills and court costs.
Approving the settlement between the graziers, CFS and ute-owner Marco Visic on Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice Tim Anderson said the amount of money for legal expenses had caused him concern.
“My concern has been the relatively small return for the plaintiffs, having regard to the total amount of the settlement,” he said.
“The plaintiffs are at a point where they will need to contribute substantial amounts of money to their solicitors for the work (of the class action) to continue (to trial).
“There is substantial risk for them should it fail … very significant amounts of money would have to be paid into court as security against loss (which) the plaintiffs would have to borrow.
“I consider that, overall, approval of the settlement is warranted.”
In November last year, The Advertiser revealed the graziers, led by Robert Proude, was suing the CFS and Mr Visic for compensation.
The 2005 fires – known as Black Tuesday – killed nine people, burned 77,000ha and destroyed 93 homes .
Mr Proude subsequently filed Supreme Court action against Mr Visic and the CFS, claiming the total value of his destroyed property, including 2205 sheep, was $1,862,795.
In December, other graziers were granted permission to join the lawsuit as a class action – together, they claimed the CFS mismanaged its response to the fires.
Mr Visic, whose ute started the blaze, filed papers agreeing with that assertion, saying any compensation should come out of CFS coffers and not his wallet .
In June, the CFS asked the court to throw out the case, saying the fires were beyond anyone’s capacity to control .
It claimed it and its volunteers were therefore not liable for the damage caused.
In July, Justice Malcolm Blue dismissed that application, saying the question of whether the CFS owed a duty of care to bushfire victims was too complex to be answered outside of a full trial.
Since then, the parties have repeatedly met behind closed doors in unsuccessful attempts to settle the matter.
Last month, Justice Malcolm Blue was told those negotiations had finally borne fruit, and that a compromise had been reached .
All that remained was for another judge, Justice Anderson, to approve the compromise deal.
Today, Justice Anderson said he had met with Mr Proude and lawyers representing the graziers during closed-court hearings.
He said he was satisfied Mr Proude and those who joined the class action understood both the terms of the proposed settlement and how the $8 million would be distributed amongst them.
Outside court, the parties released a joint statement.
Mr Visic and the CFS continued to “strongly deny all allegations”, but said their insurers would pay a total of $8 million.
“All parties were concerned at the trauma and anxiety that would be involved in them, witnesses to be called in the trial and all others involved in the fire having to relive the tragic events of January 2005,” the statement read.