Australia

Black Saturday fires: Australia court backs record payout

A file photo taken on 7 February 2009 shows vehicles burning near Labertouche, some 125km west of Melbourne Image copyright AFP
Image caption A total of 173 people died in the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, Australia

An Australian court has approved a record payout of almost A$500m (£260m; $406m) for those who survived - or lost family members to - one of the country's worst bushfires.

The payout - the largest class action settlement in Australia - was over the deadliest of the Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people in 2009.

Thousands sued a power company and others for negligence over the fire.

The settlement does not include any admissions of liability.

The case centred on the most deadly blaze on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, when wildfires swept across several areas in the state of Victoria.

This particular fire, in the Kilmore East area north of Melbourne, killed 119 people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.

A 2009 Royal Commission found that the fire began when an electricity line failed between two poles. Contact between the live conductor and a cable stay supporting the pole caused arcing that ignited vegetation, the report said.

The plaintiffs accused SP AusNet of failing to adequately maintain its power lines.

They also sued Utility Services Corporation Ltd, the line maintenance contractor, and the Victoria state government's Department of Sustainability and Environment for inadequate prevention measures.

Earlier this year, the group was awarded a settlement of A$497.4m ($467m, £274m), of which SP AusNet is expected to pay A$378.6m.

The settlement - which includes the state government - does not come with any admission of liability by any of the parties.

The agreement needed the final approval of the court, which was given on Tuesday.

Carol Matthews, who lost her son, Sam, in the fire, told the AFP news agency that the Victoria state Supreme Court's approval was "a huge relief".

"Nothing will ever replace what we have lost, but today we have been vindicated for standing up for our rights," the agency quotes her as saying.

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