Survivors of one of Australia's deadliest bush fires are to be awarded nearly A$500 million (HK$3.6 billion) in a class action settlement reached yesterday, the largest such compensation in the nation's history.
The fire, which killed 119 people, was the biggest in a series of blazes that tore through the southern state of Victoria in 2009, leaving 173 people dead and destroying more than 2,000 homes in just over a single day.
More than 5,000 people joined the class action against electricity provider SP AusNet, arguing that the company was negligent because it had not maintained its power lines, which sparked the fire. The group also sued Utility Services Corporation, which SP AusNet hired to maintain the lines, and the Victorian government.
Yesterday, the defendants agreed to pay a total of A$494.7 million. Andrew Watson, representing the plaintiffs, said the settlement still needed final court approval. It would then take 12 to 18 months to distribute the payouts, he said.
"No amount of money will ever compensate those who were affected by the fire for the losses they have suffered," Watson said. "But this settlement … represents a measure of justice and some real compensation that will ease the financial burden of their suffering."
SP AusNet said it had agreed to the settlement, but had not admitted liability. The company said the conductor that broke and sparked the fire had been damaged by lightning.
"It has been a tough, gruelling five years since the fire killed our son, left our daughter without her big brother and destroyed our home," lead plaintiff Carol Matthews said.
"There is so much pain that is still very real, but today there is also a sense of justice."