Survivors of Australian bushfire get S$316.18m in biggest class action

Australia's worst natural disaster saw 173 people killed and thousands of homes destroyed when a series of fires ripped through rural Victoria state on Feb 7, 2009. -- PHOTO: AFP
Australia's worst natural disaster saw 173 people killed and thousands of homes destroyed when a series of fires ripped through rural Victoria state on Feb 7, 2009. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Survivors of one of Australia's deadliest wildfires won compensation of A$300 million (S$316.18 million) in a pre-trial settlement on Friday, bringing to a close the country's costliest series of class action lawsuits.

Australia's worst natural disaster saw 173 people killed and thousands of homes destroyed when a series of fires ripped through rural Victoria state on Feb 7, 2009.

Last year, a court ordered energy firm AusNet Services , maintenance contractor Utility Services Corp Ltd and the state to pay A$494 million for faulty infrastructure alleged to have caused one of the so-called "Black Saturday" fires which killed 119 people, the country's biggest class action payment.

On Friday, the same defendents agreed to pay another A$300 million for their role in another blaze, the Murrindini-Marysville fire, which killed 40 people and destroyed 500 homes, taking the total compensation to nearly A$800 million.

"We're well aware that a victory even of this magnitude will never erase the pain of what people suffered, but we are proud to have helped our clients achieve some measure of justice and compensation," said Brooke Dellavedova, principal of the plaintiffs' law firm Maurice Blackburn.

In a statement, AusNet said it tried to defend each of the cases "in a manner to avoid adding to the group members' pain"while "seeking to demonstrate that AusNet Services managed its network competently and efficiently".

The company maintained that no negligence on its part caused or contributed to any of the fires. It said its insurance would cover the payout.

AusNet agreed to pay A$260.9 million, while the Victoria state parties agreed to pay A$29.1 million and Utility Services Corp agreed to pay A$10 million.

The settlement was subject to court approval, AusNet added.