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‘Black Saturday’ class action settlement a record

‘Black Saturday’ class action settlement a record

Maurice Blackburn acted for the plaintiffs on a ground breaking $494 million class action settlement – with its lead lawyer telling Lawyers Weekly defendant law firms “fiercely contested” the matter.

Maurice Blackburn acted for the plaintiffs on a ground breaking $494 million class action settlement – with its lead lawyer telling Lawyers Weekly defendant law firms “fiercely contested” the matter.

On 23 December Victorian Supreme Court Justice Robert Osborn approved a $494 million settlement to victims of February 2009’s ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in the Kilmore East-Kinglake region of Victoria.

A total of 119 people died in the blaze and more than 1,000 homes were destroyed in that area.

A previous Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission found the bushfires in Kilmore East-Kinglake were caused by faulty equipment provided by the Victorian energy company SP AusNet.

The ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires claimed a total of 173 fatalities throughout the whole of Victoria on 7 February 2009.

Maurice Blackburn acted for around 5,000 plaintiffs to the class action.

Melbourne-based senior associate Rory Walsh (pictured) had carriage for much of the matter.

He told Lawyers Weekly the defendant parties threw all their large monetary and legal resources at the matter.

“This was fiercely contested litigation,” he said. “This was a very important piece of litigation and the settlement delivers a sense of justice to the victims.”

Lead plaintiff Carol Matthews, who lost her son Sam in the fires, said the judgment provided a huge relief for her and other survivors.

 “Nothing will ever replace what we have lost, but today we have been vindicated for standing up for our rights and hopefully we’ve played an important role in ensuring large organisations adhere to higher standards in the interests of community safety,” she said.

Three main parties will be providing the settlement funds.

SP AusNet will be paying $378.6 million, the Victorian government $103.6 million and the Utility Services Corporation $12.5 million.

Maurice Blackburn will take $38 million in fees, with $22 million being allocated to disbursements, which includes payments to experts and counsel instructed.

There was no involvement from litigation funders.

That leaves over $430 million, plus interest payments, to go to the class members.

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) acted for SP AusNet on the class action.

Litigation partners Ken Adams and Ruth Overington led the HSF team.

Norton Rose Fulbright acted for the Victorian government agencies, which included the Victorian Police and Country Fire Authority. Sydney-based insurance and litigation partner Tricia Hobson led the NRF team.

Holman Fenwick Willan partner Richard Jowett was engaged by the Utility Services Group.

Maurice Blackburn instructed a number of barristers -  including Robert Richter QC, Tim Tobin SC, Andrew Keogh SC, Lachlan Armstrong SC, who was awarded silk whilst the matter was ongoing, and barrister Melanie Szydzik.

Walsh paid tribute to his legal team, which also included assistance from senior Maurice Blackburn principals Andrew Watson and Martin Hyde.

“We developed a real sense of camaraderie and friendship and relied on each other enormously given the emotional nature of much of the evidence,” he said.

The Victorian Supreme Court built a new courtroom to hear the class action, with the matter also being run entirely electronically.

Walsh said he is now turning his attention to processing around 30 claims per day, which need to be processed and distributed over the next 18 months.


Settlement sums

Yesterday’s settlement smashes the previous class action settlement in Australia.

In 2012 the Centro class action settled for $200 million.

Maurice Blackburn and Slater & Gordon acted for the plaintiffs in two separate class actions on that matter.

Law firms acting for the defendant parties included K&L Gates, who were known as Middletons at the time (Centro Retail Trust), King & Wood Mallesons (PwC), Lander & Rogers (Centro Retail Australia) and Herbert Smith Freehills (Centro Properties).

The other largest class action settlements in Australia are the Aristocrat class action ($144 million), Amcor/Visy cartel ($125 million) and the NAB collateralised debt obligations (CDO) class action ($115 million).

Maurice Blackburn acted on all of those actions.


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