Energy company will pay up after 11th-hour court settlement to Weerite, Pomborneit fire class action

An 11th-hour settlement means Powercor will pay full damages to those who suffered as a result of the Weerite and Pomborneit Black Saturday fire.

The agreement, estimated to be worth about $10 million, was reached moments before Justice Jack Forrest was due to deliver his judgment in the Warrnambool Supreme Court yesterday.

Counsel Tim Tobin, for the lead plaintiff Terry Place and about 30 other Weerite and Pomborneit residents and groups, informed Justice Forrest that a settlement had been reached before a near-full public gallery.

Under the settlement,  Powercor will be required to pay victims 100 per cent of the losses they incurred as a result of the fire.

Maddens Lawyers commercial litigation principal Brendan Pendergast said Mr Place should feel vindicated and commended for sticking to his guns.

“Although Powercor maintains denial of legal liability for the blaze, it is difficult not to conclude that the settlement reflects a concern by the power provider that the court would have found that the fire began when sparks from clashing Powercor- owned lines ignited dry grass alongside the Princes Highway at Weerite and that its maintenance of the line was inadequate,” Mr Pendergast said. The trial had been an enormous expense, involved enormous delays and personal inconveniences to the affected people of Weerite and Pomborneit, he said.

“That’s disappointing but everyone is entitled to their day in court,” Mr Pendergast said.

“Mr Place has given up weeks and weeks of his working life. He’s a very busy dairy farmer who is running a significant dairy farm operation at Weerite. 

“He is to be commended for not only giving up his time but putting at risk his family’s financial security because if this action had been lost Mr Place was at risk of bearing the costs of the proceedings,” Mr Pendergast said yesterday.

“He’s supported wholeheartedly by the people of Weerite and Pomborneit as you’ve seen in the court today and throughout the trial.

“I commend Mr Place and his wife Jo for taking the action they have.”

It’s expected that the victims of the fire would recover their damages by mid-2013.

Mr Pendergast said the victims would be reimbursed the full value of their damaged property, based on its worth the day of the fire, as determined by the court.

“Admittedly, we still have a little way to go until we can say it’s well and truly over,” he said.

“How much this settlement comes to will be ascertained once we have finalised the number of plaintiffs and the value of their damaged property and losses.”

The settlement is subject to approval by Justice David Beach, who will conduct an approval hearing on January 31.

A spokesman for Powercor said the settlement agreement specifically recorded that Powercor denied liability for the losses suffered.

“Through our insurers, Powercor has now reached a settlement of this case, providing the certainty of an outcome to both us and to our customers, who have taken the legal action to recover losses incurred through no fault of their own on Black Saturday,” the spokesman said yesterday.

“Powercor can now move forward and focus on continuing to providing a safe and reliable electricity supply to the community over the upcoming summer period, as well as working with government and regulators to continue to implement the recommendations arising from the Bushfires Royal Commission.”

Mr Place said the settlement was a big relief for him and the whole community.

“It’s a result that could have happened a lot quicker but we’re reasonably glad with what has happened,” Mr Place told The Standard yesterday. 

“It would have been great to get a finding from the Justice but this is probably a better result in the long run for the whole community.”

Justice Forrest congratulated both parties for resolving the class action and said it was one of the most expedient and efficiently run cases he had ever presided over.

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