4 Mar 2013

Black Saturday bushfire case begins

6:33 pm on 4 March 2013

Survivors of one of the biggest bushfires in Australian history are suing a Singapore power company for negligence.

The case centres on the most deadly blaze on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, when wildfires swept across several areas in Victoria and is the biggest civil case in the state's history.

The fire in the Kilmore East area, north of Melbourne, killed 119 people, destroyed more than 1000 homes and razed 125,000 hectares of land.

The plaintiffs say SPI Electricity failed to adequately maintain its power lines - claims the company denies, the BBC reports.

The case began on Monday and is expected to last at least nine months. There are about 10,000 plaintiffs who are claiming more than $A1 billion in damages.

In 2009, a Royal Commission found that the fire began when an electricity line failed between two poles. Contact between the live conductor and a cable stay supporting the pole caused arcing that ignited vegetation, the report said.

The plaintiffs accuse SPI of failing to maintain its equipment adequately.

"This fire was entirely preventable," their lawyer, Robert Richter, told the court. "With known and reasonable steps taken in time, SPI could and should have prevented it."

Mr Richter rejected the company's stance that a lightning strike damaged the power line's infrastructure.

The group are also suing maintenance firm Utility Services Corporation Ltd over its inspections of the power line.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment, the Country Fire Authority and the State of Victoria are also being sued.

A total of 173 people died in the Black Saturday fires.