Denis Spooner lost his wife, his son and his friends in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, and five years later he is still grappling with the events of that afternoon.
Mr Spooner said that the $500 million settlement is acknowledgement of the suffering that bushfire survivors have gone through, but will never ease the pain of losing their loved ones.
“It’s not going to bring Marilyn and Damien back, and its not going to bring my friends back, but it’s some recognition for what some people have gone through,” he says.
One hundred and nineteen people lost their lives in the Kilmore East-Kinglake fire, with more than 1000 homes lost and an estimated $1 billion in damage.
The Kilmore East and Kinglake survivors sued electricity provider SP AusNet, Utility Services Corporation Limited and the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE).
They claimed energy provider SP AusNet equipment ignited the Black Saturday blaze, but settlement was reached without admission of liability.
The proposed settlement of $494.7 million – to be paid by SP AusNet, Utility Services Corporation Ltd and the Victorian government – is understood to be the largest class action settlement in Australian history.
Victorian Premier Denis Napthine said the record payout to victims of the bushfire victims won’t impact the state budget bottom line, with costs to be covered by insurance.
It’s those unexpected moments that it hits you the hardest.
After a harrowing 16-month trial, Mr Spooner, who has long championed psychological support for survivors, says the settlement will enable him to see his counsellor more often, but the court ruling will never bring him closure.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get closure. It can hit you at any time. It’s those unexpected moments that it hits you the hardest.”
Anne Leadbeater, whose property was affected by the Kinglake fire, says that while the settlement is the largest in history, the class action was never about the money.
“I think for many people in this area it was never about the money as much as trying to introduce some accountability for what happened,” says Mrs Leaderbeater.
“The money will never bring back people from our community that we lost, and for some people it might help them to get their lives back on track, but it’s never going to be the same for many people affected by the event,” she says.
Mrs Leadbeater became an active community leader following the crisis, later giving evidence at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.
She says that the settlement is an important step toward recovery for survivors of the fire.
“I see the resolution of the class action as one more piece of that puzzle; one more opportunity for people to say ‘I’ve got a little bit of my life back’.”
“This is about helping people move forward,” she says.
“It’s a lot of money and it will be assistance to some, but really it’s more about being able to acknowledge the grief and pain that people have gone through.”
Maurice Blackburn Lawyers working on the class action said that victims of the Kilmore East-Kinglake fire had got “some justice today”.
Black Saturday timeline
Black Saturday bushfires: Death toll 173 including 119 in Kilmore East-Kinglake fire
June 19, 2010 – Lawyers Maurice Blackburn lodged a statement of claim in the Supreme Court against SP AusNET for inadequate maintenance standards on a Kilmore East powerline that started the fatal fire
October 3, 2010 – Then premier John Brumby says the government will defend the Country Fire Authority, Department of Sustainability and Environment and Victoria Police from SP AusNET defence claims they failed to quell the fires and give communities adequate warning
May 10, 2011 – Supreme Court bid by SP AusNET and Victoria Police to stop class action fails
August 13, 2012 – Supreme Court Justice Jack Forrest says urgent government assistance is needed to hire a Melbourne CBD office to hold the class action, the state’s largest class action, because no court room is large enough
November 30, 2012 – Class action delayed from January 29, 2013, to March 4 because a court room for the hearing is not yet complete
March 4, 2013 – Class action begins
July 15, 2014 – Class action settled, with Kinglake residents to share in a total $494.7 million payout from SP AusNet, Utility Services Corporation Ltd and Victorian State Parties with no admission of liability
– with AAP