Record payout over Australia Black Saturday fires

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

Survivors of one of the worst bushfires in Australia have won a payout of almost A$500m ($470m), in the country's largest class action settlement.

Some 10,000 plaintiffs sued a power company for negligence over the fire.

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

This 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 Department of Sustainability and Environment for inadequate prevention measures.

The group were awarded a settlement of A$497.4m ($467m, £274m), of which SP AusNet will pay A$378.6m.

The settlement represented "a measure of justice and some real compensation to help ease the financial burden of their suffering," lawyer for the plaintiffs Andrew Watson said.

SP AusNet said the settlement came without an admission of liability by the company.

"SP AusNet's position has been, and continues to be, that the conductor which broke and which initiated the fire was damaged by lightning, compromising its fail-safety design in a manner which was undetectable at the time," it said in a statement.

"It is a tragedy that the conductor eventually failed on one of the worst days imaginable."

A total of 173 people died in the Black Saturday fires.

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