A class action by more than 6 000 Brisbane and Ipswich flood victims began in Sydney on Monday. Tipped to be the largest class action ever seen in Australia, the victims seek compensation from dam operators Seqwater and Sunwater, as well as the state of Queensland.
Led by personal injury giant Maurice Blackburn, and backed by litigation funder IMF Bentham, the claim was filed in 2014. It is not being heard in Queensland as, at the time of filing, Queensland courts did not hear class action suits (the law has since changed). The claimants will allege that the dam operators did not follow their own operations manual during the flood and left it too late before releasing water downstream.
Barrister Julian Sexton QC, for the plaintiffs, said that flood engineers failed to “free up space” for huge downpours in early January 2011 because they were unreasonably concerned with maintaining water supply after years of drought. Mr Sexton alleges that the interim focus of the engineers was to mitigate minor urban flooding, ignoring the risk of a major flood event.
Additionally, Mr Sexton said that by engineers “bet against” four to eight day forecasts of further rain, instead relying only on rain that had already fallen. Dam operators justified their actions by arguing that four to eight day forecasts were too unreliable and water should only be released from dams “when rainfall has actually occurred so the effect of flood mitigation … is known with certainty”.
Mr Sexton said he would call dam experts who would underline the importance of “pre-empting” rainfall to clear up space and halting releases altogether in flood peaks. Ultimately, the action by the claimants alleges that the actions of the dam operators significantly worsened the effect of the flooding.
Seqwater chief executive Donna Gregory, in scrutinising the claim said “we have never wavered from our belief that our flood engineers did an extraordinary job in the most difficult and demanding circumstances”.
The trial will see two weeks of arguments in Sydney before being adjourned until February where expert evidence will be led and a tour of the dams will occur.