The case has been lodged in the Supreme Court by regional Victorian firm Maddens Lawyers, who have been actively involved in litigation against electricity companies on behalf of bushfire victims.
This includes a similar class-action Maddens launched last year against SAPN for their alleged role in the November 2019 Yorketown fire.
The Cudlee Creek blaze tore through nearly 25,000 hectares of land within a 127-kilometre perimeter in the Adelaide Hills during Australia’s 2019/20 black summer bushfires – resulting in one death and the destruction of nearly 100 homes.
A state government investigation into the cause of the fire determined it likely started when a 24-metre pine tree collapsed onto an 11-kilovolt powerline near Holland Creek Road on December 20, 2019.
One of the live conductors then came into contact with a wire fence and the ground, igniting the blaze on what was the fourth straight day of catastrophic fire danger in SA with temperatures climbing above 45 degrees across the state.
The Office of the Technical Regulator cleared SA Power Networks of any wrongdoing, with their report finding “the tree that fell was at a distance greater than the minimum clearance distance”, with investigators unable to find “any indicators that could have enabled a reasonable person to identify this tree failure prior to the event”.
SAPN’s internal investigation into the matter also found no breach of company policy or legislation.
But Special Counsel Brendan Pendergast – who will be spearheading the class action – argues more could have been done by the electricity distributor to prevent the blaze.
“The class action claim relates to the inadequacy of SA Power Networks fault protection settings,” Pendergast said.
“20 December 2019 was forecast to be a catastrophic day of fire risk. That forecast was known well in advance and wasn’t unexpected given the conditions in the days prior.
“More could and should have been done by SA Power Networks to ensure their protection devices responded immediately to any faults on their network.
“These steps could have easily been implemented and wouldn’t have cost SA Power Networks a cent.”
He said the report by the Office of the Technical Regulator was “brief” and does not address concerns raised by the lawsuit.
“It doesn’t go to the issues that would give rise to liability or cause of action in a civil court,” Pendergast told InDaily.
“So we’re not discouraged by the conclusion reached in that report.”
The temperature at the Mount Lofty weather station was 36.2 degrees at around 9am when the Cudlee Creek fire was first reported.
Pendergast argues SAPN should have better prepared its safeguards for the conditions forecast on the day.
“Given the location of the (power) line, the topography, and the extremely high risk of a fire, we say that the power company ought to have adjusted its protection devices so that they were set at the absolute highest setting,” he said.
Pendergast has led previous class actions against electricity distributors, including a high-profile case on behalf of victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.
He said the common thread between the cases “relates to a failure to maintain an operator’s safe system of electrical distribution in bushfire locations”.
Lead Plaintiff Kris Thrower, who lost his house and almost all of his possessions in the blaze, said he has not been able to get any personal closure from the disaster.
“I worked so hard to establish myself and now I’ve stepped back all the way to zero with absolutely nothing,” he said.
“It still gives me nightmares. I’d like to think that someone is held accountable for the devastation to my life, my family’s life, the environment around us and all the animals that perished.
“Mentally, I’m anxious. I used to be one of the calmest people I know, now every day I’m looking on the horizon for a fire … my life has been flipped upside down.”
In a statement, SAPN said it had not yet seen the detail of the claim “but will defend its actions”.
“An independent government report concluded the fire start was due to a tree falling from outside the clearance zone and that SAPN had acted in accord with its bushfire and vegetation management procedures and equipment settings,” it said.
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