Australia court approves record compensation payout of $537m to wildfire victims

A bushfire near the town of Rylstone, Australia, in 2009. -- PHOTO: AFP
A bushfire near the town of Rylstone, Australia, in 2009. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - An Australian court has approved a record payout of almost A$500 million (S$537 million) to survivors and families of some of the 173 people killed in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the country's worst-ever natural disaster.

A class action lawsuit by more than 5,000 people sued electricity provider AusNet Services and asset manager Utility Services Corporation Ltd after a Royal Commission found that the Kinglake fire, the most deadly of the series of wildfires, was caused by an ageing AusNet power line.

AusNet and Utility Services denied liability.

The settlement, which includes the Victorian state government, excludes any admission of liability.

On Feb 7, 2009, bushfires tore through much of the southern state of Victoria, killing 173 people. More than 1,000 people were injured and 1,172 homes were destroyed.

"While we can never compensate people for what they've lost, particularly those who've lost loved ones, we have recovered in this proceeding A$494 million," Rory Walsh from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers said after the ruling in the Victorian Supreme court.

"We hope that that money can help people alleviate some of the hardships that they continue to experience today," he said.

AusNet will pay A$378.6 million, with Utility Services paying A$12.5 million and the Victorian government paying the remainder.

AusNet said its liability insurers have paid its entire contribution. The company is still facing another lawsuit over the Murrindindi series of bushfires on Black Saturday and "intends to vigorously defend that claim".

The company said its insurance should also cover any payout in that case, but noted that "the ultimate resolution of this matter cannot be known with certainty".

The near A$500 million payout is more than double the previous Australian class action settlement of A$200 million paid by Centro Properties Group and accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2012 to shareholders of Centro who alleged they were deceived by the group's failure to properly disclose its debt levels.

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