February 15, 2009

First the fire, then the lawyers

With nearly $100 million in cash donations (not counting goods & services given) in only a single week, plus government payments to all families affected by the bush fires, plus the hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars that will - quite rightly - go toward rebuilding communities and essential services and facilities, and lets not forget to throw in the tens of millions that insurance companies will cover for loss of lives, homes, businesses, and many benefits and fundraising activiteis in the weeks ahead ....

Well, it adds up to an awful lot of material sustenance for the fire victims.

No one can begrudge them this support in getting them back on their feet.

None of it is intended, nor can it ever, compensate for what has been lost. It would be impossible to attempt to balance such an equation.

So, here is the moral conundrum, the pushing of the envelope if you will: a number of legal firms have already lodged class actions to sue one of the electricity companies and the government of Victoria.

I'm struggling to interpret downed power lines and subsequent fires (if proven true) to be acts of negligence. It's par of the course in extreme weather, winter or summer. It doesn't signify under-spending or lack of appropriate maintenance. It's just as normal, just as expected - in the extremes - as a lightening strike, a wind change, a thunder storm ... or a bush fire.

It's the price you pay for having handy-dandy access to modern utilities, no matter how far off the beaten track you happen to live.

Even in the city, instantaneous fixes aren't available. If the fault is out in the middle of nowhere it takes time for the big city folk to lasso a truck & tradies and get on site to do repairs.
It might take hours to get there, no different to the amount of time it would take for rural residents to travel to or from the nearest city or regional business centre.

So far three regions have been named as locations where fires might have been ignited by electrical wires.

The royal commission (a report from which isn't expected for a long time, maybe late next year), might or might not confirm the suspicion in one or all instances. If it proves true, will that be deemed negligence by a court? I know stranger things have happened, councils have been sued and lost for far lesser deeds.

Will the survivors of this disaster really feel comfortable about opportunistically profiting from their own misfortune, their community misfortune?

They would be the same people who, no doubt, cast a vote one way or another based on who promises to bring them the same facilities out in the boondocks as the city folk have.

They now want to sue because nature has it's way with all variety of man made structures, including power lines?

With so much generosity from across the nation and across the world, given freely, without looking for cause or blame, without seeking to apportion just compensation to this one or that one, surely these class actions are tacky, at the least, or greedy and morally questionable, at worst.

Huge fire class action sought


  1. Who do they think will pay damages should they win against the government, state and local, and utilities? Eventually it will be them and/or their community.

    Perhaps they should wait until the Royal Commission is complete - although I'm disappointed that there has to be a Royal Commission, we should have learned from previous fires, I think the pundits are right, we get complacent with time.

    I wonder why the coroner can't find out what needs to be known in his investigation, although I suppose a Royal Commission has greater powers than a coronial inquest.

  2. Well, the Kennett gov't put a cap of $100M liability on utility companies (keep in mind it wasn't that long ago that they were in public hands), so the amount of money already raised by their fellow citizens is all they would get (minus legal fees) from the utility company if they won the case. Although a reduced pool of recipients, keeping in mind that only, say, a few hundred people from each region where power lines might have played a part would get the payout. The question of equity also becomes problematic. With some being able to sue and others not, because, well, gosh darn it, they can't find anyone to sue!

    However, what is being mooted is that any "gap" above that amount, if successful, would have to be paid by the gov't - by us, by tax payers, who will already be picking up most of the bill directly via personal donations and via our taxes that will pay for the clean up and rebuilding the infrastructure in any case.

    One hopes that the Royal Commission draws directly from the Canberra inquiry of only a few years ago, which did the hard yards and had the good sense to summarize the findings of every fire inquiry every conducted. They don't have to reinvent the wheel, that work is the starting point, at least for generic material. They will still need to investigate the specifics of all of the fires across Victoria, so that will be a big job, with goodness knows how many witnesses.