Record settlement reached in Australia wildfire suit

SYDNEY — Survivors of one of Australia’s deadliest wildfires are to be awarded nearly 500 million Australian dollars ($470 million) in a class action settlement reached Tuesday, the largest such compensation in the nation’s history.

The fire, which killed 119 people, was the biggest in a series of blazes that tore through the southern Australian state of Victoria in 2009, leaving 173 people dead and destroying more than 2,000 homes in just over a single day.

More than 5,000 people joined the class action against electricity provider SP AusNet, arguing the company was negligent because it hadn’t maintained its power lines, which sparked the fire. The group also sued Utility Services Corporation Ltd., which SP AusNet hired to maintain the lines, and the Victorian government.

On Tuesday, the defendants agreed to pay a total of AU$494.7 million. Attorney Andrew Watson, who represents the plaintiffs, said the settlement still needs final court approval. It will then take 12 to 18 months to distribute the payouts, he said.

“No amount of money will ever compensate those who were affected by the fire for the losses they have suffered,” Watson told reporters in Melbourne. “But this settlement of nearly $500 million represents a measure of justice and some real compensation that will ease the financial burden of their suffering.”

SP AusNet said in a statement that it had agreed to the settlement, but had not admitted liability. The company said the conductor that broke and sparked the fire had been damaged by lightning.

“It has been a tough, grueling five years since the fire killed our son, left our daughter without her big brother and destroyed our home,” lead plaintiff Carol Matthews said. “There is so much pain that is still very real, but today there is also a sense of justice.”

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