Flood class action opens ‘can of worms’

 

A LANDMARK billion-dollar class action in favour of thousands of victims of the 2011 southeast Queensland floods has opened a "can of worms" for Townsville, as questions are raised about the possibility of a similar scenario in the city following the February monster monsoon.

More than 6000 victims of the 2011 floods are likely to receive hefty compensation cheques after the Supreme Court of New South Wales ruled the State Government had failed to manage its dams properly during the event.

The outcome of the court battle, by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers against the State Government, Sunwater and Seqwater, has raised questions about the precedent it has set for Townsville.

MORE: What would have happened if the dam gates were opened earlier

Flood review finds Ross River Dam operations satisfactory, flooding could have been worse

Seen is a general view of the flooded area of Townsville on February 04, 2019 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
Seen is a general view of the flooded area of Townsville on February 04, 2019 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

 

A Townsville City Council spokesman said it would review the findings made by Justice Robert Beech-Jones to "ascertain if any are applicable locally".

The council pointed out that an independent review by the Inspector-General of Emergency Management, released in July, found the Ross River Dam was operated appropriately during the February monsoon event.

The IGEM report determined the council's "flexible approach" in implementing the dam's emergency action plan, instead of rigidly adhering to it, proved better.

"In summary, the report found the dam performed satisfactorily during the flood event," the report stated.

Queensland Law Society president Bill Potts said a class action was designed so litigants who wouldn't otherwise have the resources could take on a Goliath as a collective of Davids.

He said three elements were needed, demonstrating that authorities had failed in a duty of care, acted negligently and caused damage.

"No one can control the weather, but we can control the way in which we react to the weather or where we build our properties," Mr Potts said.

"In the case of Townsville, it may well be the people whose houses were inundated, particularly where houses have been built in areas known to flood, there may well be actions against a number of people, including Townsville City Council, who allowed people to build there.

"Much will depend upon whether they can point to any action, or omission, by any authority, be it the local council, the people who were in charge of the dams, if they can point to anything that has caused damage and loss as a result of negligence."

The report also found Townsville's City Plan had balanced flood risk versus cost of living by requiring home floor levels to accommodate a one-in-100-year flood event.

Townsville floods. Ross River Dam from a helicopter. Picture: Zak Simmonds
Townsville floods. Ross River Dam from a helicopter. Picture: Zak Simmonds

 

The February flood event has been deemed somewhere between a one-in-500-year and one-in-1000-year event.

Ron McGinty, of New Park Suit Hire and Menswear on Charters Towers Rd, said he thought the Brisbane decision would open a "can of worms".

While the IGEM review found the operation of the dam in February was good, Mr McGinty said there was a lot of conjecture among his customers that the dam gates should have been opened sooner.

"This (class-action result) is going to open a can of worms, particularly here in the North," he said. "This will certainly make this council here sit up and take notice."

A survey of 500 residents for the review found nearly a quarter believed an early release of water would have made a difference to their properties, while 30 per cent thought floodwaters wouldn't have been as high.

The IGEM review argued the opposite, that there would have been increased flooding if the Ross River Dam gates had not been opened manually four times at the behest of the council.

The report also found there would have been nearly no difference in the impact of the flooding if more water had been released from the dam sooner.

 

Seen is a general view of the flooded Townsville suburb of Rosslea on February 04, 2019 in Townsville, Australia.(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
Seen is a general view of the flooded Townsville suburb of Rosslea on February 04, 2019 in Townsville, Australia.(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

 

Fairfield Central Medical Centre owner Michael Clements said if a class action occurred, he would be part of it.

"Given the findings of the court in the Brisbane floods, I would be interested in a class action in Townsville," he said.

"While I trust the management (of the dam) and the council did the best they could with the information they had, the question remains: Could they have done better?"

Former NQ Water chairman Ian Hamilton, who served from 1987 to 2008, said the council and the dam operators obeyed the manual, and they couldn't be faulted for that.

"That doesn't mean the manual is necessarily correct," he said.

The Brisbane flood class action was held in NSW because class-action legislation was not in place in Queensland until 2016.

Townsville has a history of recent class-action successes, including the landmark racial discrimination and stolen wages payouts for the people of Palm Island.


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