find the latest legal job
Part Time Risk & Compliance Officer
Category: Other | Location: Brisbane QLD 4000
· Brisbane City · Flexible Part Time Hours
View details
Infrastructure Lawyer/SA
Category: Construction Law | Location: Sydney CBD, Inner West & Eastern Suburbs Sydney NSW
· Global elite law firm · Dedicated Infrastructure team
View details
Property Lawyer
Category: Property Law | Location: All Melbourne VIC
· 12 Month Contract · Diverse Work
View details
Family Lawyer
Category: Family Law | Location: Eastern Suburbs Melbourne VIC
· Boutique Firm · Great Reputation
View details
Infrastructure Lawyers
Category: Construction Law | Location: All Perth WA
· We'd be particularly interested to hear from you if you were a lawyer who knows your way around the infrastructure and energy sectors.
View details
Bushfires spark liability debate

Bushfires spark liability debate

Climate change could contribute to a rise in bushfire class actions, particularly if power companies fail to upgrade ageing infrastructure, legal experts have claimed.

With fires blazing in five out of six states at the moment, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and a number of environmental experts have pointed to climate change as a likely cause. The Australian Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Law discussed the link between global warming and natural disasters, such as bushfires, at its conference last month (December).

John Walker (pictured), head of litigation funder IMF, has warned government agencies and power companies to be ever more diligent in their duties under the law as the nation braces for the most dangerous conditions for fires on record.

“The need to have more care has increased,” he told Lawyers Weekly. “Where there is a breach of duty, litigation will commence.”

Maddens Lawyers’ commercial litigation principal Brendan Pendergast agreed. Last month (December), Pendergast settled a bushfire class action against electricity distributor Powercor over a 2009 Black Saturday bushfire that destroyed land and property in western Victoria.

Under the settlement, which is estimated to be worth $10 million, Powercor will pay victims 100 per cent of the losses they incurred.

“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 ... from clashing Powercor-owned lines ... and that its maintenance of the line was inadequate,” he said.

Five Black Saturday bushfires were caused by electrical faults, according to the Black Saturday Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission, which also found the risk of power line failure increases on days of extreme fire danger.

“Add an ageing infrastructure and reduced maintenance cycle and you have a recipe for problems,” Pendergast added.

In 2011, Powercor paid Horsham residents and businesses around $40 million to settle another Black Saturday-related class action. Electricity provider SP AusNet also settled its bushfire class action with Beechworth residents in 2012.

Prior to settling, SP AusNet tried to blame the Government for breaching its duties to the public. The company argued that the Country Fire Authority failed to warn communities and did not provide adequate resources, including communications equipment and skilled staff, to an incident control centre.

While SP AusNet’s argument was rejected by the Royal Commission, which found the blaze was caused by an electrical fault, the move sparked debate over whether the state can be held liable for poor evacuation procedures.

Walker claimed attaching legal liability to the Government in connection to bushfires is “fraught with difficulty”.

“It’s within the state’s power to ensure it is not liable or has a relevant duty; even if there is a relevant duty, it can grant itself immunity.”

Walker admitted, however, that claims against the state can succeed where specific duties are outlined under the empowering legislation.

Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

The legal budget breakdown 2017

Bushfires spark liability debate
lawyersweekly logo
Promoted content
Recommended by Spike Native Network
more from lawyers weekly
Nov 17 2017
It's time for politicians to commit to eradicating domestic violence
The national shame of domestic violence cannot be left unaddressed, writes Christine Smyth. ...
Nov 16 2017
From lawyer in law firm to senior governance professional
Promoted by Governance Institute of Australia As a law graduate, Kate Griffiths never imagined...
marriage equality
Nov 16 2017
Legislation the next hurdle for marriage equality
Lawyers have underscored the importance of ensuring same-sex marriage legislation does not limit ant...
Allens managing partner Richard Spurio, image courtesy Allens' website
Jun 21 2017
Promo season at Allens
A group of lawyers at Allens have received promotions across its PNG and Australian offices. ...
May 11 2017
Partner exits for in-house role
A Victorian lawyer has left the partnership of a national firm to start a new gig with state governm...
Esteban Gomez
May 11 2017
National firm recruits ‘major asset’
A national law firm has announced it has appointed a new corporate partner who brings over 15 years'...
Nicole Rich
May 16 2017
Access to justice for young transgender Australians
Reform is looming for the process that young transgender Australians and their families must current...
Geoff Roberson
May 11 2017
The lighter side of the law: when law and comedy collide
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much that is amusing about the law, writes Geoff Rober...
May 10 2017
Advocate’s immunity – without fear or without favour but not both
On 29 March 2017, the High Court handed down its decision in David Kendirjian v Eugene Lepore & ...