Posted on 27 Mar 2019
The Supreme Court of Western Australia today ruled in favour of 189 residents and landowners affected by the Parkerville bushfires in 2014. This is the first class action* in the modern era where a company has been found liable for failing to prevent a bushfire.
The court found that the first-named plaintiffs, Gary and Sandra Elwood were entitled to receive compensation totaling $774,733. With the Elwood’s having already received an insurance pay out of around $500,000, they stand to gain up to $250,000.
The blaze was sparked by a fallen power pole that swept across almost 400 hectares of bushland, destroying 57 homes and severely damaging many more in Parkerville, Stoneville and Mount Helena. Experts gave evidence in the trial that the jarrah pole fell as a result of extensive damage to the base caused by termites.
The Court found that Thiess, the sub-contractor of the State-owned Western Power was liable for not taking reasonable steps to prevent the bushfire. Theiss was apportioned with 70 per cent of the legal responsibility. The Court also assigned some of the legal liability to the owner of the land where the pole was located. The landowner was represented at the trial by her insurance company’s legal team.
In particular, the Court found that Thiess had failed to properly train its workers to inspect the power poles, describing the performance of a key inspection technique as hopelessly inadequate.
It further found that the Thiess lines crew did not have the necessary skills, qualifications and training to carry out the work, and that it was negligent in the manner in which it inspected the pole that ultimately collapsed and caused the bushfire.
Slater and Gordon Practice Group Leader Rory Walsh said he was delighted with the outcome which will see his clients compensated for the damage caused.
“Over the last five years, our clients have had to fight long and hard to achieve this outcome. This was an entirely avoidable catastrophe and two of the three defendants have now been found liable and are now required to provide compensation to our clients,” Mr Walsh said.
“Western Power were fortunate to have avoided liability by sheeting responsibility home to its contractor, although that contractor was ultimately found to be negligent in its inspection of the pole. We are closely considering His Honour’s reasoning in this regard and will speak to our clients over the coming days about their options.
“Now that the Court has found two of the three defendants are liable, it is imperative that compensation be promptly paid to our clients who are still suffering financial hardship as a result of this catastrophic event.
“We have today sought orders from the court that a mediation be convened to agree on a path forward for all our clients to be compensated in the shortest possible timeframe.”
Parkerville bushfire: series of events
- The Parkerville bushfire was sparked on 12 January 2014 when a power pole on a property on Granite Road collapsed. As the pole fell, the live electrical wiring was exposed and arced against the metal enclosure. A burst of sparks ignited dry grass around the pole and the resulting fire swept across 400 hectares of bushland through Parkerville, Stoneville and Mount Helena. Fifty-seven homes were destroyed and many more were damaged.
- Post-fire investigations showed the pole had fractured just below the ground line due to rot and termite damage. Less than four per cent of the original wood at the groundline fracture point was sound.
- The pole was supposedly inspected by Theiss line crews doing contract work for Western Power just six months before it fell and sparked the fire. Two days before the fire, another Theiss line crew conducted maintenance on one of the nearby poles which required the contractors to specifically check the condition of the surrounding poles. The poles were not checked and just 36 hours later, the pole fell and sparked the Parkerville bushfire.
- *While the action has been run as a collective or group action on behalf of 189 named residents and landowners, it is not a formal representative proceeding (or class action) in the ordinary sense as Western Australia does not have legislation in place for class actions to be run (unlike Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales and the Commonwealth jurisdictions).