A WARRNAMBOOL legal company is heading a $300 million compensation battle for about 750 victims of four devastating Black Saturday bushfires.
Already Maddens Lawyers has created history in achieving the first bushfire class action in Australia to be resolved after settlement of a case for Horsham victims earlier this month.
The five-week trial was the first in regional Victoria to be conducted solely using electronic documents in court rather than the usual mountain of paperwork.
Soon it will take on power companies for victims of fires at Beechworth, Coleraine and Weerite.
Its team has toiled for thousands of hours and researched tens of thousands of documents in preparing the cases. Along the way, the company has become a regional trendsetter in lodging case documents and
summaries on the internet.
The Black Saturday caseload started with a flash of inspiration by Maddens senior partner Brendan Pendergast as he watched television coverage of the devastation on the evening of February 7, 2009.
When Mallee MP John Forrest mentioned that power lines were believed to have caused the Horsham fires it prompted Mr Pendergast to recall how his company played a major role in litigation for the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires.
So he telephoned recently-retired partner John Madden, who had worked on 400 individual writs for the Ash Wednesday blazes, resulting in $40m compensation from the former State Electricity Commission for victims.
Mr Madden took up the challenge, packed away his retirement schedule and embarked on what would become a huge undertaking to investigate the Black Saturday fire causes, driving across the state to collect evidence and interview victims.
He used The Standard’s news photographs to spot vital clues into the Weerite blaze.
“That give me the first evidence of clashing electrical wires and we located two eyewitnesses,” Mr Madden
Then when the state government announced a royal commission into the fires Maddens sought leave to represent victims and subsequently appeared on numerous days of the gruelling hearings.
“Our team has spent two-and-a-half years exclusively on these cases,” Mr Pendergast said. “It’s been the biggest piece of litigation in the firm’s history. We’ve effectively had six people plus three barristers working on it.
“Across the four fires there would be about 750 victims and an estimated compensation of $300m.
“As well as common loss of property, livestock, fencing, trees and income two people lost their lives at Beechworth and one of the Coleraine victims suffered serious burns.”
For Mr Madden, his post-retirement workload has been onerous but satisfying.
“During the five-week Horsham trial each of us were working 12 hours a day,” he said. “We had to study 22,000 pages of documents produced by the defence in the first tranche and then nine other tranches followed.
“But then in the courtroom documents had to be displayed electronically. It was a huge undertaking to have all the paperwork scanned to electronic files and numbered accordingly.
“I believe that was the first trial in provincial Victoria done electronically.
“We’ve proven ourselves to be leaders in this field and there’s no reason why we from a rural base can’t operate in the highest courts in Australia.”
The Horsham settlement still needs to be ratified by another review judge, but Maddens is confident it will be
later this year.