Huge fire class action launched
Cameron Houston and Michael Bachelard, The Age
February 15, 2009
THE Brumby Government and a private electricity company face one of the largest class actions in Victorian history over last weekend's devastating firestorm.
The legal wrangle, which is expected to involve hundreds of millions of dollars and last for years, will centre on a fallen power line that is believed to have sparked the blaze that tore through Kinglake, Steels Creek and St Andrews, killing more than 100 people and destroying about 1000 homes.
The Phoenix taskforce is examining a two-kilometre stretch of power line in Kilmore East that snapped during strong winds and record heat about 11am last Saturday. Within minutes a nearby pine forest was ablaze. Within six hours the fire had destroyed nearly every building in the towns in its path.
On Thursday, police removed a length of the fallen power line and a pole as evidence.
The lawsuit will cover thousands of farmers, small business owners, tourist operators and residents who lost homes.
Yesterday Slidders Lawyers partner Daniel Oldham confirmed that a class action had been issued in the Supreme Court of Victoria on Friday against Singapore-owned electricity company SP AusNet, which is responsible for maintaining most of the power lines in eastern Victoria.
"It is believed that the claim will be made on the basis of negligent management of power lines and infrastructure," Mr Oldham said.
Gadens Lawyers will issue a separate claim against SP AusNet this week. Slater & Gordon has refused to rule out similar action, but said the firm would wait for the findings of a royal commission to be released late next year.
The Insurance Council of Australia has estimated the cost of the fires at about $500 million. But SP AusNet's legal liability has been capped at $100 million under a deal struck by the former Kennett government with private utility operators, when the former State Electricity Commission was privatised in 1995. Legal sources said this meant the Brumby Government could be forced to cover a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Friday's Supreme Court action came as five Western Districts law firms, including Maddens Lawyers and Brown & Proudfoot, met to discuss a separate class action on behalf of victims of the Horsham bushfires, which were also caused by faulty power lines. Legal action is also expected over a separate fire sparked by a fallen power pole that burnt vast swathes of land in Mudgegonga and Dederang.
In other developments:
■ Marysville residents yesterday made the journey back to view their stricken town in a convoy of coaches.
■ The Department of Sustainability and Environment said favourable weather conditions had helped bring all but 12 remaining blazes under control last night, and an 800-kilometre containment line was close to completion.
■ Major-General John Cantwell, acting head of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, said builders and other tradesmen would start work on fixing damaged homes this week.
■ A senior emergency services source confirmed that the triple-0 phone line was going unanswered during the crisis, preventing people from reporting new fires, and that CFA internal radio and paging services, and emergency notifications on CFA and DSE websites were clogged and inadequate.
■ Royal commission chairman Justice Bernard Teague acknowledged the "huge challenge" ahead, but would not elaborate on the terms of his inquiry until his appointment was made official tomorrow.
Melbourne barrister Tim Tobin, QC, successfully represented hundreds of victims of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in a class action against the State Electricity Commission. The statutory authority was forced to pay out more than $300 million to more than 5000 claimants, after clashing power lines were found to have caused fires at Mount Macedon, north of Melbourne, and Warrnambool, in the state's west.
Mr Tobin said private utility companies had a duty of care to Victorian communities.
"That means keeping electricity lines clear of trees and in a condition that won't cause fires. They must also have systems in place to identify and prevent risks occurring," Mr Tobin said.
A spokeswoman for SP AusNet said the power company would assist with investigations into the cause of the deadly blaze.
"Our priority is to restore power to fire-affected areas as quickly as possible," she said.
A spokesman for Energy Safe Victoria said the government body had audited the network's bushfire risk to make sure required distances between power lines and vegetation were maintained. Power companies had been given a clean bill of health, and electricity firms were judged to be "well prepared for the 2008-09 bushfire season".
He said there were no regulations applying to the distances between poles supporting electricity lines and spans of one kilometre were not unusual.