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Bushfire victims claim 'corporate bullying' as Western Power claims court costs

Parkerville bushfire victims could be ordered to pay millions of dollars in court costs in what has been described as an act of "corporate bullying" by Western Power after attempting to sue the authority over the fire sparked by a fallen power pole more than five years ago.

The Parkerville bushfire, also known as the Perth Hills Bushfire, burned between January 12 and February 1 in 2014 and razed 57 homes in the Mundaring municipality.

The devastating Parkerville fires of January 2014 were caused by the failure of a privately owned power pole.

The devastating Parkerville fires of January 2014 were caused by the failure of a privately owned power pole.Credit:DFES

Noreen Campbell, then 83, owned the Granite Road property where the pole collapsed and sparked the fire, and her name was added to a multi-million dollar class action against Western Power and subcontractor Thiess back in 2016.

The WA Supreme Court ruled in favour of the 189 bushfire victims in March this year, with the judgment dictating first-named plaintiffs Gary and Sandra Elwood would receive $774,733 in compensation for the blaze that destroyed their home.

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The court found Thiess was ultimately responsible for not taking reasonable steps to prevent the bushfire, but Ms Campbell was also found liable for failing to maintain the pole on her property.

Ultimately Thiess was liable for 70 per cent of the legal responsibility, and Ms Campbell was found 30 per cent legally liable.

However Slater and Gordon, the law firm that represented the class action, revealed on Wednesday state government-owned Western Power would now seek an order to force the victims pay back the costs of the two-month trial after the authority itself was not found liable by the court.

In a statement, Slater and Gordon said the decision was unusual because the power company had an option to claim back costs from Thiess, the part found 70 per cent responsible for the blaze’s damage.

"While Western Power acknowledges it has the right to recover its costs from its negligent subcontractor, it has now chosen to first recover its legal costs directly from the victims of the fire,” the statement said.

Slater and Gordon practice group leader Rory Walsh said the latest order would only cripple people who had already been financially devastated by the fire.

"Western Power was very, very lucky to escape liability in this case and it is now seeking its legal costs from a community already devastated by the bushfire caused by Western Power’s negligent contractor,” he said.

"In either event, there is nothing compelling Western Power to recover its costs from the victims of its subcontractor’s negligence; Western Power is choosing to recover its costs from these people.

"We don’t believe there could ever be a good enough reason to pursue the victims of this fire.

"We are used to standing up to this sort of corporate bullying from the big end of town, but we don’t expect it from a company owned by the citizens of Western Australia, nor from a state government that campaigned on a platform of improving bushfire safety.

"It is simply a disgrace.”

Outside of court earlier this year, Parkerville bushfire victim and lead plaintiff Sandra Elwood told the media she hoped the ordeal would be over soon.

"As you can see I’m pretty emotional now, very happy with the outcome I just want to see our friends and family move on."

As the Parkerville civil case remains an open matter before the Court Western Power will continue to respect the legal process through our willing participation in all proceedings.

The Supreme Court of Western Australia has determined that Western Power does not have any liability in relation to the Parkerville bushfire.

The timeframe for parties to appeal that decision has not yet commenced.

In the interim, cost orders have been sought against all parties who unsuccessfully commenced proceedings against Western Power including the insurance group plaintiffs.

The lodgement of cost orders is part of the legal process that is underway this week. A decision on whether cost orders will eventually be enforced has not yet been made. It would not be appropriate to make that decision until all court processes are at an end.

The Perth Hills community left devastated after fire rips through Parkerville, Stoneville and Mt Helena.

The Perth Hills community left devastated after fire rips through Parkerville, Stoneville and Mt Helena.Credit:DFES

A Western Power spokesman said they would "continue to respect the legal process" and participate in all proceedings.

"The Supreme Court of Western Australia has determined that Western Power does not have any liability in relation to the Parkerville bushfire," he said.

"The timeframe for parties to appeal that decision has not yet commenced.

"In the interim, cost orders have been sought against all parties who unsuccessfully commenced proceedings against Western Power including the insurance group plaintiffs.

"The lodgement of cost orders is part of the legal process that is underway this week. A decision on whether cost orders will eventually be enforced has not yet been made. It would not be appropriate to make that decision until all court processes are at an end."

Hannah Barry is a journalist for WAtoday.

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