Australia — Survivors of the Black Saturday bushfire that destroyed Marysville will likely get their share of a $300 million settlement within 12 months, having cleared the final legal hurdle in the long-running case.
The Victorian Supreme Court signed off on the proposed class action settlement between victims, power company AusNet Services and the state government on Wednesday, allowing compensation claims to be assessed over the devastating disaster.
“It’s a great relief. It’s wonderful that it’s finished,” said Dr Katherine Rowe, who lost her husband Ken in the blaze. She also lost two properties and led the class action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of victims.
“It does allow people to realise that they can actually get on with rebuilding. A lot of people were close to retirement and lost everything and it made it very difficult for a large number of people.”
The Murrindindi-Marysville bushfire killed 40 people and razed at least 500 properties on February 7, 2009.
The class action lawsuit was brought against AusNet, its maintenance contractor UAM, the Country Fire Authority, the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, and the state government for alleged failures in power line inspections, maintenance, community warnings, and planned burning.
Law firm Maurice Blackburn, which brought on the class action, alleged that a faulty power line fell and electrified a fence near the disused Murrindindi saw mill, igniting the massive inferno.
AusNet, however, disputed that its power line had caused the blaze, having signed off on the settlement on the morning of a planned trial in February with no admission of liability.
In approving of the proposed settlement on Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Karin Emerton said there was considerable benefit to settling the case early: it would save victims the trauma of a trial and potential appeals, which could drag on for years.
“I am satisfied that the settlement is fair and reasonable and in the interests of group members as a whole,” she told the court.
She also threw out an application by plantation company HVP to adjust the settlement scheme to better reflect its own losses. “I’m not prepared to do that,” she said.
Class actions principal Brooke Dellavedova said that while it remained a no-fault settlement, it would still provide a measure of justice for victims.
“There is nothing easy about these cases,” she said of the long legal battle.
“The significance of the sum and the timing of the resolution show that these actions force large organisations to take notice.”
There are 385 personal injury claims and 1057 households with property damage from the bushfire to be assessed, which will take around 12 months before compensation payouts can be distributed, she said.
The settlement is Australia’s second-largest class action settlement and the last pending court matter over the Black Saturday fires.
AusNet will pay out $260.9 million, its maintenance contractor UAM will pay $10 million and the state parties $29.1 million out of the $300 million deal.