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Australia bushfire survivors in record class action win

Survivors of a devastating 2009 bushfire in Australia won a nearly A$500 million payout Tuesday in the biggest class action settlement in the nation's history.

SYDNEY: Survivors of a devastating 2009 bushfire in Australia won a nearly A$500 million ($470 million) payout Tuesday in the biggest class action settlement in the nation's history. The Kilmore East blaze was the largest of the "Black Saturday" February 2009 fires in southern Victoria state that left 173 dead and razed more than 2,000 homes, the nation's worst natural disaster of modern times.

More than 10,000 people joined the action against SP AusNet, which is majority owned by Singapore Power, over the Kilmore inferno, which killed 119 people and caused an estimated A$1 billion in damage. They won a settlement of A$494.7 million.

"No amount of money will ever compensate those who were affected by the fire for the losses that they suffered," said the head of Maurice Blackburn lawyers' class actions department Andrew Watson. "But this settlement of nearly half a billion dollars represents a measure of justice and some real compensation to help ease the financial burden of their suffering."

Lead plaintiff Carol Matthews, whose son Sam, 22, burned to death, claimed the power company's faulty equipment ignited the blaze with lawyers arguing the resulting fire, which destroyed 125,000 hectares (309,000 acres), was "entirely preventable". "Nothing will take away the pain of losing my son and today's settlement won't change what has happened," she told a press conference. "But today there is an element of relief and a sense of comfort that this settlement will ease the financial struggles that so many people are still facing on a day to day basis."

She said the 200-day trial "exposed many of the failings that occurred on that day, failings that were very avoidable" and hit out at SP AusNet. "I find it unthinkable that the primary concern of SP AusNet was not for the survivors and the 119 lives that were lost, but purely to try and reduce their liability regarding a fire that was completely preventable."

SP AusNet said in a statement the settlement was reached without admission of liability by the company or any other party. The group had also sued Utility Services Corporation Limited, which was contracted by SP AusNet to maintain the line, and the Department of Sustainability and Environment for allegedly failing to reduce fuel loads. SP AusNet said it sought to conduct its defence in a manner to avoid adding to the pain of those affected, while demonstrating that its network was competently and efficiently managed.

"The conductor which broke and which initiated the fire was damaged by lightning, compromising its fail-safety design in a manner which was undetectable at that time," it said. "This point was accepted by experts called by all parties who provided evidence in relation to the conductor break. It is a tragedy that the conductor eventually failed on one of the worst days imaginable." 

Maurice Blackburn said the payout was more than double the previous highest Australian class action settlement of A$200 million. "It's a significant and substantial amount," said Watson. "The volume of claims in this matter was unprecedented."

Among the claims were 1,700 for personal injury, nearly 4,000 for uninsured and under-insured property loss and about 5,000 other insurance claims. Wildfires are a fact of life in Australia but a royal commission into the "Black Saturday" infernos said they were of unparalleled ferocity, whipped up by hot and dry conditions. Its four-volume report detailed a disaster plagued by "systemic failings" and chaos and made a raft of recommendations, including an urgent upgrade of ageing electricity infrastructure in fire-prone areas.

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