Black Saturday negligence claim settles for $300 million

Picture: Getty Images

Energy company AusNet Services has reached a 11th-hour damages settlement worth $300 million in a class action brought by residents of Marysville, a Victorian town destroyed in the 2009 Black Saturday fires.

The February 7 fire between Murrindindi and Marysville destroyed more than 500 properties. Forty people died.

The no-liability settlement will be covered by insurance and is the third deal reached by AusNet in the wake of the devastating fires. Two months ago the Victorian Supreme Court approved a record $494 million class action over the Kilmore East fire, in which 119 people died and nearly 2000 properties were affected. AusNet also paid $8.8 million to Beechworth residents in another settlement.

Today’s agreement concludes all of the actions against the company, with total payouts reaching $800 million.

In a statement to the ASX, AusNet said it had “endeavoured to conduct its defence in each case in a manner to avoid adding to the group members’ pain, while necessarily seeking to demonstrate that AusNet Services managed its network competently and efficiently”.

It said the company “maintains that there was no negligence on the part of AusNet Services which was caused, or contributed to, the Murrindindi bushfire, nor any of the other Black Saturday fires.”

The Supreme Court trial over Marysville was delayed for two days as negotiations continued with the claimants, represented by Maurice Blackburn. The law firm had alleged negligence, claiming an electrical conductor sparked the fire, claiming deficiencies in power pole construction were to blame. The fire broke out around 3pm near the Murrindindi Sawmill before spreading to Marysville.

The lead claimant was Dr Kathy Rowe, who lost her husband, education expert Dr Ken Rowe, when fire engulfed their holiday house in Marysville.

“Personally, this fire changed my life as I knew it, and it will never, ever be the same. I know that many others have had even greater trauma to deal with and we are all still trying to deal with each passing day and week,” Dr Rowe said.

“I truly hope that the compensation we have been able to secure today will help all those people still trying to rebuild, and that it lessens the ongoing burden somewhat for people, although it can never fully account for what we’ve gone through and lost.”

This morning’s deal was announced an hour before the trial was due to begin before Justice John Dixon and will need to be approved by the Supreme Court.

The Victorian government will pay $29 million towards damages and personal injury claims, with AusNet’s contribution at $260 million, and maintenance contractor Utility Services Corporation, $10 million.

Maurice Blackburn class actions Principal Brooke Dellavedova said the settlement saved everyone the ordeal of a year-long trial.

“We’re well aware that a victory even of this magnitude will never erase the pain of what people suffered on that devastating day, but we are proud to have helped our clients achieve some measure of justice and compensation in respect of this tragedy,” she said.

The sixth anniversary of Black Saturday is tomorrow. The fires killed 173 people.

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