SYDNEY - An Australian court has approved a record payout of almost A$500 million (S$536 million) to survivors and families of some of the 173 people killed in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the country's worst natural disaster.
A class-action lawsuit by more than 5,000 people sued electricity provider AusNet Services and asset manager Utility Services Corporation 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.
The claims were mostly for personal injury and uninsured and underinsured property loss.
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. Damage was estimated at A$1 billion.
"While we can never compensate people for what they have lost, particularly those who have 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 the money can help people alleviate some of the hardships that they continue to experience today."
He noted that a settlement on such a scale had not been attempted in Australia.
"Even with a team of assessors working tirelessly in evaluating claims as quickly as possible in order to get the approved compensation to people, the court has recognised that we will need to fully process around 30 claims per day for 18 months," he said.
AusNet, which until January was majority-owned by Singapore Power, will pay A$378.6 million. Utility Services, which was contracted by AusNet to maintain the power line, will pay A$12.5 million. The Victorian government will pay the remainder.
AusNet said that 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".
Lead plaintiff Carol Matthews, whose son Sam, 22, burned to death, said that the judgment provided a huge relief for her and other survivors of the fire.
"It is a huge relief to know that the court has approved a settlement, and that people will finally receive some compensation and justice for what we have all been through," she said.
"Nothing will ever replace what we have lost, but today, we have been vindicated for standing up for our rights.
"Hopefully, we have played an important role in ensuring that large organisations adhere to higher standards in the interests of community safety."
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 that they were deceived by the group's failure to properly disclose its debt levels.