“Black Saturday bushfire survivors secure $500 million in Australia’s largest class action payout” is the heading of a story appearing today on ABC Online. The story says “Survivors of Victoria’s devastating 2009 Black Saturday bushfires have secured a $500 million payout, in what lawyers have called the biggest class action settlement in Australian legal history.”
A settlement means the parties reached an agreement on the damages rather than having a judge determine the legal and factual issues. This would appear to reflect past history, that actions against the electrical authorities settle because causing devastating bushfires is just part of the cost of running a profitable electricity business in Australia (see ‘Bushfires; the price we pay for electricity’, 20 May 2014; see also ‘First of the Black Saturday cases settled’ 23 November 2011; ‘Further settlement of Black Saturday claims’, 17 May 2012; ‘Canberra bushfire litigation settles against the ACT’, 20 September 2012; ‘More on the Canberra litigation’, 21 September 2012 ‘South Australian litigation ends’, 13 November 2013).
An interesting aspect of this case is that the defendant SP-Ausnet joined various state authorities including the CFA and Victoria Police (see ‘Kilmore East litigation Update’, Country Fire Authority, 9 November 2011; ‘Two important cases start in court this week’, 5 March 2013 and ‘‘Black Saturday’ litigation’, 11 May 2011). The ABC is reporting that:
SP AusNet has agreed to pay $378.6 million, while Utility Services Corporation Ltd will pay $12.5 million.
State parties, which included Victoria Police, the CFA and the Department of Sustainability and Environment, have agreed to pay $103.6 million.
A settlement occurs without admission of liability so the payment by Victoria does not mean they believe that they were at fault (just as SP AusNet continues to deny negligence). There are however lots of pressures on litigants to settle including ‘uncertainty, complexity and scale of the case’ and in the case of a government, political pressure and an obligation to act as a ‘model litigant’ (see Victorian Model Litigant Guidelines, 2012).
Other litigation arising from these fires will continue, but experience might suggest that they, too, are likely to settle.