Victims to share in massive $1B compo payout

 

SOUTHEAST Queensland flood victims are likely to share in a record compensation payout that could reach $1 billion, after the Supreme Court found the state government contributed to the intensity of the deadly January 2011 floods.

In a historic decision after more than 15 months of hearings, 2100 pages of testimony and 26,000 documents, the Queensland Government, along with Seqwater and Sunwater, were yesterday found to have exacerbated the flooding that destroyed thousands of houses.

The ruling draws a line under a turbulent chapter of Queensland history, and yesterday brought grown men to tears in the streets of Goodna.

Lead plaintiff Vince Rodriguez, who became a symbol of the tragedy after his family-owned sports shop in Fairfield Gardens Shopping Centre was destroyed by floodwater, was one of the first to express his gratitude at the outcome

A map showing the flood zones along the Brisbane River
A map showing the flood zones along the Brisbane River

"We have been waiting for this outcome for a very long time and we are so relieved that the court has found what we have known for a long time, that the dams were mismanaged in 2011," he said.

The devastating floods decimated parts of southeast Queensland, destroying thousands of houses in suburbs such as Graceville, Goodna, Rocklea and West End.

Thirty-three people were killed in the disaster.

Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, which launched the mammoth lawsuit in 2014, has consistently maintained a simple proposition that dam engineers had allowed too much water to build up, forcing them to release large volumes at the height of the flood and exacerbating the flood damage.

Seqwater employed two of the four dam engineers, John Tibaldi and Terry Malone, while Robert Ayre was employed by Sunwater and John Ruffini was employed by the State Government.

NSW Supreme Court Justice Robert Beech-Jones came down firmly on the side of the 6800 flood victims in his judgment, which found dam operators at Wivenhoe and Somerset did not operate the dams correctly and failed to take into account rain forecasts.

Pontoons and other flotsam on the Brisbane River in mid-January 2011
Pontoons and other flotsam on the Brisbane River in mid-January 2011

Justice Beech-Jones was unequivocal in his rejection of a key defence of the three respondents - that the dam manual did not require engineers to take into account rain forecasts in dam release strategy, but rely on accounts of how much had already fallen.

"There are 12 references to rainfall forecasts in the manual,'' Justice Beech-Jones said.

"Their inclusion … was certainly not a mistake."

Householders and business owners who risked nothing to join the class action may not be the only ones compensated.

Insurers such as RACQ and Suncorp, which paid out around $1.5 billion, are now expected to closely analyse the judgment to determine if they can pursue the Government for their own compensation.

Flood victims yesterday urged the Government not to pursue its right of appeal, but Attorney General Yvette D'Ath was giving no indication of the likely legal path.

"The Government will closely examine the judgment before making any comment on a possible appeal,'' she said.

The possible $1 billion compensation bill equates to about $147,000 per person, but payouts would vary based on damage suffered by individuals.

If complainants received government assistance at the time of the floods, that would be deducted from their payout.

Insurance claims paid out would not be affected.

Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington said the decision showed Labor had failed to properly manage dams.

"Labor's mismanagement put lives at risk and destroyed property,'' she said.

"(Premier) Annastacia Palaszczuk should apologise on behalf of the Bligh government and ensure this mismanagement never happens again.

"Taxpayers will now be slugged millions because of Labor's incompetence.''

Maurice Blackburn principal lawyer Rebecca Gilsenan said it was a protracted battle.

"Our clients' concern that the dams above Brisbane were negligently operated in the 2011 floods has been vindicated,'' she said.

"The NSW Supreme Court has delivered justice … for the unnecessary devastation that they suffered.

"The focus of the defendants now should be to compensate the victims of their negligence swiftly and fairly and to bring to a close this long and distressing saga."

Goodna flood victim Frank Beaumont was ecstatic with the flood inquiry judgment. Picture: Peter Wallis
Goodna flood victim Frank Beaumont was ecstatic with the flood inquiry judgment. Picture: Peter Wallis


Hope floats in Goodna

AS SUPREME Court Justice Robert Beech-Jones delivered his verdict, Goodna flood victim Frank Beaumont burst into tears and fell into the arms of former councillor Paul Tully.

Shirtless and in the mud-covered pants and shoes he wore when the 2011 flood ripped through his Enid St home, Mr Beaumont said he had finally received the acknowledgment victims had craved for nine years.

"We should not ever have been flooded," he said.

Mr Beaumont and Mr Tully had gathered with other victims who lost everything.

They recalled seeing a dead kangaroo hanging from a powerline - a memory that has now become a measure of just how high the water rose.

"It was just devastation," Mr Beaumont said.

"I have a two-storey house with a TV aerial six feet above my roof - I couldn't even see the TV aerial."

 

The front of Mr Beaumont’s home after the floods
The front of Mr Beaumont’s home after the floods

 

But as Mr Tully popped champagne in the beating sun yesterday, the memories of what the group lost were replaced by joy and satisfaction.

The next battle is ensuring they see their payout.

Mr Beaumont, 78, wonders if he'll live to spend it.

"I've got to live to see it first, because firstly we have not put in an itemised claim," he said. "We have to supply receipts from nine years ago to get what we're suitably entitled to. How long do most of these receipts last?"

Brisbane Tce resident Lubo Jonic is seeking $2.5 million after his two-storey home, his house next door and his petrol station all went under.

"We want to fix everything up," he said. "The service station is still not running. We'd bought brand new pumps for $100,000 one week before it flooded. They were out the back ready to go in and then they were under water."

Despite yesterday's victory for these residents, they now face another anxious wait, with the State Government able to appeal the Supreme Court decision within the next 30 days.