Survivors of the deadliest Black Saturday bushfire will get access to a record $500 million payout within the next 18 months.
A Victorian Supreme Court judge approved the settlement of the class action brought by 5000 residents of the East Kilmore-Kinglake area after fire ripped through the community in February 2009, destroying homes and lives.
The judge’s official approval ends a five-year legal battle that included a 16-month trial.
Maurice Blackburn lawyers senior associate Rory Walsh said the process to assess and distribute claims will start on Wednesday.
“We estimate that we will be able to assess each claim and distribute the money within 18 months,” Mr Walsh said.
Assessors will process between 25 to 30 claims a day in the largest claim assessment ever attempted in Australia, he said.
Lead plaintiff Carol Matthews, whose 22-year-old son Sam was one of the 119 people killed by the blaze, said the class action had been a very difficult and emotional path, but she felt justice had been served.
“There is an element of relief and a sense of comfort that nearly six years on from February 7, 2009, we will finally get to ease the financial struggles that so many people are facing on a day-to-day basis,” Ms Matthews told reporters on Tuesday.
About 5000 residents from the East Kilmore and Kinglake area will share in $494.7 million.
More than 1000 homes and properties were destroyed, and more than 1000 people were injured in the East Kilmore-Kinglake fire.
The survivors sued electricity provider SP AusNet, Utility Services Corporation Limited and the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
The class action was settled in July without admission of liability.
Ms Matthews said she hoped the companies would review and renew their standards of operation.
They need to take into account the rationale behind the record-breaking class action settlement, she said.
“They need to do everything they can to stop another avoidable disaster from destroying so many lives,” Ms Matthews said.
After the payout was formally approved on Tuesday, Ms Matthews revealed she had worn a five-cent piece charm made by her son throughout the entire process.
“It’s one of the only tangible pieces that I have left of my son,” Ms Matthews said on Tuesday.
“I’ve brought him to court and all the hearings and meetings, and I’ve held on to it knowing that at some stage he would help us to get some justice for all those people who died.
“This isn’t just about Sam, it’s about the 119 people that died on that day who needn’t have.”