Winners ‘should repay fire grants’

BUSHFIRE victims who win damages in court should have to pay back to the relief fund any grants they had received, the barrister leading a class action said yesterday.
“Anyone who gets full compensation in relation to their claim … should repay the money,” said Tim Tobin, SC.
He said that in 1980s court cases where power suppliers were successfully sued over bushfires, donated money had been returned. This was fairer and allowed more to go to people who had suffered but did not have grounds to sue, he said.
Mr Tobin estimated the damages bill for the Kinglake area could run to between $600 and $800 million, not including personal injury claims. He said Kinglake was one of six fires on Black Saturday believed to have started as a result of fallen power lines or other electrical problems.
Mr Tobin was speaking at a forum of the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance.
He said there were questions about merged fires at Kinglake but witnesses had seen part of the fire begin at Kilmore East.
“We have people who saw the start of the fire. We can pinpoint it. One of the witnesses is cleaning leaves and his wife yells out, ‘The power’s gone off!’ and at the same moment he sees the fire start.”
Mr Tobin said it was uncertain if a wire fell and hit the ground before it broke, or whether it broke and then hit the ground, but it was believed to be a broken line because the power stopped the moment the fire began.
He said a fire at Pomborneit, near Colac, began with clashing power lines – “a totally avoidable error”. A fire in a Yarra Valley vineyard started with a transformer, and fires in the areas of Horsham and Coleraine started with fallen wires, he claimed.
Mr Tobin said other fires began as a result of lightning strikes caused by changes in the weather triggered by the fires.
An affidavit filed with the Supreme Court confirmed Leo Keane as lead plaintiff in a class action suing transmission company SP Ausnet over fires that allegedly started from faulty power lines.
The severity of fires in recent decades was linked partly to changed land practices by farmers, Mr Tobin said. Previously, large paddocks left fallow acted as natural fire breaks, but this was no longer the custom.
A second speaker told the forum that 30 per cent of bushfire victims making insurance claims have found they were under-insured.
Graham Cox, claims manager for LMI group, said the first four CFA volunteers assessed by special teams sent on to fire-grounds were found to have no insurance.
Under-insurance would make it even more difficult for home owners who would be forced to rebuild using metal frames rather than timber frames, increasing the cost of replacing their buildings, he warned.
Mr Cox said anecdotal evidence gathered by assessors suggested individuals had died after staying to defend their homes because they knew they had no insurance and could not replace them.
Other assessors had reported that some deaths were thought to involve people who had recently moved from the city and did not understand bushfires.
– Repayments would be a matter of fairness, says lawyer.
– He said fallen power lines caused six February 7 fires.
– Thirty per cent of claimants were under-insured.
First published in The Age.