A SMALL North East law firm has been successful for the third time in suing over bushfires caused by corporate entities represented by high-profile legal heavyweights.
But 40 years of experience by Peter Lenne and two previous Supreme Court actions laid the foundations for a settlement over the fatal Beechworth bushfire three years ago.
Mr Lenne, a partner in Nevin, Lenne and Gross, acted in an advisory capacity as his firm joined forces with Maddens Lawyers from Warrnambool to launch a class action against SPI Electricity Pty Ltd (trading as SP AusNet) and Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment, Parks Victoria and Eagle Travel Tower Services Pty Ltd.
Two of Australia’s biggest legal firms, Freehills and Norton Rose, represented the defendants.
It was a true David and Goliath battle, but the smaller combatants won.
Mr Lenne bought a five-hectare property from the Hicks family in Carroll’s Road at Mudgegonga in 1978 and lived there with his family for 25 years before selling in 2003.
His best friend was Ray Hicks and frantic phone calls were made as fires raged in February 2009 to check on the welfare of him and his wife Bev.
They survived the fire storm, but Mrs Hicks told Mr Lenne to “get your suit and tie back on because it was caused by a power company”.
Mr Lenne had retired just 12 weeks earlier and then assisted Veronica Haccou and Mark Wearne to prepare a group litigation over the destructive and deadly fires.
Back on February 1, 1968, a fire started in the Mudgegonga area and travelled to Dederang and the eastern side of the Kiewa Valley.
It burnt out 33,000 hectares, a similar area to the fire three years ago, and impacted on 42 farms.
Nevin, Lenne and Gross represented 17 people who sued the State Electricity Commission for causing the fire, the first such case in Victoria.
It was held in the Supreme Court at Wangaratta and settled with a further 25 plaintiffs launching successful actions.
A condemned power pole blew over at Dederang in January 1978 causing a fire that damaged about 14 properties.
An action on behalf of 12 farmers was launched against the commission and settled in 1983.
The law firm in 1995 launched a successful litigation on behalf of 15 tobacco growers against the Department of Agriculture over faulty seed.
Mr Hicks was the original plaintiff in the case against SP AusNet and others contacted Nevin, Lenne and Gross as well.
Maddens had a background in fire litigation and came to the North East seeking clients.
At the time, Nevin, Lenne and Gross had about 30 clients and the two firms joined together.
Paul Mercieca became the main plaintiff in the case in December 2010.
He was living with his partner, Amelia Coombes, in a house on the Hicks property and they almost died in the fire.
They were leaving the property in a vehicle with pets when they were surrounded by fire, but were saved by a fire tanker.
They were present yesterday but declined to make any comment.