By Thuy Ong
Survivors of one of Australia’s deadliest wildfires won compensation of nearly A$500 million ($470 million) on Monday, the biggest class action settlement in Australian legal history.
The Kilmore East-Kinglake bushfire in February 2009 claimed 119 lives, destroyed 1,200 homes and caused an estimated A$1 billion worth of damage. It was part of a series of blazes across Victoria state, which became known as Black Saturday and killed 173 people.
Under the settlement of about A$ 494 million reached with the defendants after a 16-month trial in the Victoria Supreme Court, energy company SP AusNet will pay the bulk of the compensation – A$378.6 million.
Submissions by the 5,000 plaintiffs said one of the host of fires had been caused by an ageing power line owned by the company, majority owned by Singapore Power, itself wholely owned by Singapore state investor Temasek.
Maintenance contractor Utility Services Corporation Ltd will pay A$12.5 million and Victorian state parties, including Victoria Police, the Country Fire Authority and the Department of Sustainability and Environment will pay A$103.6 million.
“Today’s settlement will provide significant compensation for their losses and some long overdue justice for people who have suffered great adversity,” Andrew Watson of Maurice Blackburn, the law firm that funded the case, said in a statement.
SP AusNet said the settlement contained no admission of liability on its behalf. Shares in the company, which extended condolences to those who suffered losses in the fire, fell 1.1 per cent to A$1.35, compared with a flat broader market.
Australia is the driest inhabited landmass on earth and is particularly prone to deadly wildfires, most often over the southern summer.