The legal battle over the October bushfires has officially begun.
On Friday residents of Winmalee, Springwood and Yellow Rock lodged a class action against Endeavour Energy claiming inadequate maintenance of a tree near powerlines led to the fire that destroyed 200 homes and damaged as many again.
The residents claim the fire started when the poorly-maintained eucalypt fell on electrical conductors in Linksview Road on the afternoon of October 17.
The lawyer leading the class action, Brendan Pendergast, said the claim is likely to exceed $200 million and as many as 600 owners may ultimately be involved.
Mr Pendergast, a senior partner in Victorian legal firms Maddens, said his company had won significant compensation for victims of the 2009 bushfires.
“We’ve successfully settled class actions for four different communities that were burnt out during the Black Saturday fires,” he said. “In all four cases, the fires were the result of poorly-maintained powerlines, or surrounding infrastructure, combining with extreme weather conditions to ignite a fire.”
Lead plaintiff Sean Johnston (pictured) who lost his home at 109 Buena Vista Road, said Endeavour Energy had expected Mountains residents to take undue risks.
“I always thought powerlines should be underground, especially in the more extreme places. They can take a risk but it’s their risk, they can’t then pass on the risk to the community.”
“That fire was 100 per cent preventable by protecting the lines better and being in the peak fire period, cleaning up some outstanding trees by their asset [the power pole].”
“So many people who are way under-insured will never come back from this situation. You still go through Winmalee now and there’s hardly any houses and it’s going to be like that for six or seven years. It’s wrong what happened, something needs to change it. Corporations just can’t pass on their risk to the community.”
Mr Johnston, 45, a senior water systems operator with Sydney Catchment Authority, said the hardest part about the fires was “losing all the irreplaceable things, things that I’ve collected, travel photos, photos from my childhood, letters from good friends, past relationships and people who I’ve met in all corners of the world” as well as “not having any physical memories from the past, which when you hold bring back a load of memories and emotions”.
“Everything I owned was in the house. I just had my work clothes on, that was it.”
Mr Johnston, who has lived in the Mountains for 40 years and would like to rebuild at Buena Vista, said he was $250,000 worse off due to the fires. As the chief plaintiff he takes some personal risk but has full confidence in the lawyers. “It’s not something new for them.”
“They [Maddens representatives] said at the town meeting someone would need to stand up and take that role and with it comes some risk. If I had family and kids [and] a lot more stress it would be really hard to risk all that for everybody else, no matter how positive they thought [the case] was.”
“The Mountains has been good to me, it’s nice to do something in return. I’ve spoken to people recently who are still wrecked and devastated from it.”
Mr Pendergast said about 150 residents have so far signed up to the action.
“I am quite confident that we will be able to establish that there has been a failure to discharge the duty of care which lies with an energy company that distributes what is a lethal product, that is, electricity, through overhead conductors in tinder dry conditions where there are trees compromising the clear space around the conductors,” he said.
“It is a recipe for disaster and the tree in question had previously been identified as a hazardous tree.”
Residents can contact Maddens on tollfree number 1800 139 290 to learn their options or they can register online at maddenslawyers.com.au.
“Quite simply, the residents of this area have suffered losses that are not their fault,” Mr Pendergast said. “They are losses that would not have occurred had the right procedures been followed.
“There is no reason these residents should sit back and just accept that this fire occurred ... There is every reason for them to ask the question of what they are due, because it is what they deserve.”
A spokesman for Endeavour Energy said: “We understand the NSW RFS preliminary investigations indicate that the Linksview Road, Springwood fire was started by a large tree falling across powerlines during high winds. The cause of this fire is also being investigated by the NSW Coroner and we’re doing everything we can to assist with this.”