By Claire Ottaviano
AFTER seven years of court battles and legal proceedings, victims of the 2014 Parkerville Bushfires say they can finally have a little peace after Western Power was found 50 per cent responsible for causing a blaze that destroyed 57 homes.
In a decision handed down last Friday, July 2, the WA Court of Appeal found the majority of fault for the fallen power pole that sparked the fire lay with Western Power, along with its subcontractor Ventia (formerly Thiess) (35 per cent) and owner of the property Noreen Campbell (15 per cent).
The process to get to this point started in 2015 when law firm Slater and Gordon lodged a group action law suit against Western Power on behalf of 189 residents affected by the fire.
The seven-week trial was livestreamed in a WA first.
In March 2019, a judge found the subcontractor and homeowner responsible for the termite-ridden power pole and cleared Western Power of any liability.
Lead plaintiffs Garry and Sandy Elwood said they were happy with the outcome of the appeal.
“It’s the way it should have been from the original judgement, it’s pretty much what we wanted,” Mrs Elwood said.
“Western Power got away with it at the start and continued to try and get away with it until the Court of Appeal came back and said ‘you’re liable’.”
While the battle was won, she said the war to make sure the same thing never happened again would wage on.
“It will bring closure for sure, but Garry and I have always said it was never about the money, it was about Western Power taking responsibility to stop this happening again,” she said.
“Don’t get me wrong the reimbursement has helped us get back on our feet and it has helped a lot of people, but we’ve had bankruptcies, suicides, marriage breakups and post-traumatic stress.
“They said it was lucky no one died [in the fire], but it’s not just about the day of the fire it’s the after effects and these people, seven-and-a-half to eight years later, are still suffering.”
In the future Mrs Elwood would like to see power poles inspected at the time of a property being sold or bought and the liability of power pole inspections on rural properties made a condition of settlement.
Stoneville and Parkerville Progress Association vice president and Plaintiff Group Committee coordinator Greg Jones said the judgement would require Western Power to inspect every ‘point of attachment’ (POA) power pole connected to its network, regardless of whether it is privately owned or not.
“It must also keep records of those periodic inspections and ensure that any rectification works are duly completed so the POA power pole can be passed as safe to continue to operate,” he said.
“This is the best outcome that the 2014 Bushfire victims could hope for, as it means bushfires caused by powerline infrastructure failures are much less likely to occur.”
“In future, others may not suffer the same stressful fate as the 2014 bushfire victims have endured.”
In its judgment, the Court of Appeal said the potential risk of harm of damaged power poles in bushfire prone areas was “foreseeable and known”.
“A reasonable operator would have undertaken periodic inspections of wooden poles more than 15-years-old especially in rural areas where there was an elevated risk of bushfires,” the Court of Appeal judgement noted.
“The likely seriousness of the resulting harm is grave, with a bushfire in a high fire-risk area likely to imperil the lives, health and property of a large number of persons in the vicinity of the failed pole.”
Slater and Gordon practice group leader Rory Walsh said Western Power had long refused to accept responsibility for periodic safety inspections of power poles on private land, and instead argued the responsibility to inspect the poles rested with private landowners.
“There is estimated to be more than 100,000 uninspected poles across the network, the majority of which are wooden and situated in rural environments, although a precise number is unknown,” Mr Walsh said.
The plaintiffs said they were now also free from a Western Power court order that sought to recoup millions of dollars in court costs from residents after the 2019 trial – but Western Power claims the entity did not enforce any court cost orders.
Slater and Gordon anticipates further compensation will now be available to the Parkerville bushfire plaintiffs as a result of the Court of Appeal’s decision.
A Western Power spokesperson said the entity could not make comment while it was considering the implications of the judgement.
“We appreciate how difficult this time has been for the Parkerville community,” they said.
“The majority of claims have now been paid and the Court of Appeal’s decision will not impede any further payments to claimants.”