MELBOURNE — Victims of Australia's deadly 2009 firestorm have launched legal action against a Singapore power firm alleging poorly-maintained electrical wires sparked the blaze, reports said Saturday.
Lawyers representing almost 600 people lodged a class action in Victoria's Supreme Court against Singapore Power for allegedly failing to maintain an ageing line, which fell and started the February 7 fire at Kilmore East.
It was the deadliest blaze of "Black Saturday", Australia's worst natural disaster, claiming 119 of the 173 lives lost. Legal firm Maurice Blackburn said the suit could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We have heard strong evidence at the Royal Commission (into the fires) that Singapore Power could have taken a number of steps to prevent the devastating Kilmore East-Kinglake bushfire," firm chairman Bernard Murphy told The Age newspaper.
"Electricity distribution companies are commercial enterprises that have a responsibility to ensure that public safety is not compromised simply in order to keep costs down. Singapore Power's failures have had very tragic consequences."
The action currently has 598 plaintiffs but could grow to as many as 1,300, including people who lost family members in the fire, suffered physical injuries and lost property, or had ongoing psychological damage, The Age said.
It will allege Singapore Power failed to fit a 10 dollar (8.70 US) anti-vibration device to guard against metal fatigue and that the circuit-breaker system was not adequate for a dry, windy, fire-prone area.
The 1.1-kilometre (0.7-mile) single-strand line, one of the longest in Victoria, was only checked every five years and rust and wire deterioration could not be detected by ground crews, the case will also claim.
Unusually for an Australian civil case, Maurice Blackburn has asked that it be decided by a jury instead of a judge.
The Black Saturday fires rushed into small communities with little warning, killing 173 residents as they sheltered in their homes, or fled in cars. Entire towns were razed, reducing more than 2,000 homes to ash.
Update: (19 June 2010, 10.58pm)
In a statement to the media, Singapore Power says it is not a defendant in the suit.
According to Channelnewsasia: “In a statement released on Saturday, SP AusNet, which is 51% owned by Singapore Power, said the defendant in the bushfire proceedings is SPI Electricity Pty Ltd, its electricity distribution operating company.”
The Straits Times had also carried the AFP report on its website.
Read about Black Saturday here.
Pictures from Wikipedia.
Video of the fire in 2009: [More videos here].