A devastating bushfire that tore through the southern Tasmanian town of Dunalley in January 2013 would not have occurred if it was not for the negligence of a property owner who allowed a campfire to be lit in a tree stump on her property several days earlier, the Supreme Court in Hobart has ruled.
Justice Stephen Estcourt has handed down his decision in one of Tasmania’s largest civil cases.
About 400 plaintiffs were listed in the case, alleging Melissa Jane Barrett and her partner were negligent in lighting the fire in the old stump on December 28, 2012, were negligent in their “paltry efforts” to extinguish the fire, and that Ms Barrett was negligent in her response to observing steam rising from the stump after light rainfall on January 1 or 2.
Justice Estcourt said he accepted those submissions.
“But for the pleaded negligence, the bushfire would not have occurred and none of the plaintiffs would have suffered a loss from the bushfire,” he said.
Sonia Daly was named as the test plaintiff in the case. Justice Estcourt ruled Ms Barrett was liable for Ms Daly’s losses – valued at $300,000.
“It follows in principle that [Ms Barrett] should be liable to each of the other plaintiffs … subject to proof of damage,” Justice Estcourt said.
The plaintiffs are represented by three insurance companies, who are suing the defendants’ insurance companies. It is not known how long it would take for the insurers to receive any money.
Ms Barrett’s partner, Hamish Robinson, settled his case for an undisclosed sum in April.