PFAS Class Action: $56 million to be paid in February, concerns over controversial cuts and delays

Anthony Bartlett and Kirsty Bartlett say they are happy with the settlement outcome, and hold high hopes Katherine's PFAS class action sets a precedence for future legal action. Picture: Roxanne Fitzgerald.
Anthony Bartlett and Kirsty Bartlett say they are happy with the settlement outcome, and hold high hopes Katherine's PFAS class action sets a precedence for future legal action. Picture: Roxanne Fitzgerald.

A landmark class action over PFAS contamination that has won millions for residents impacted in Katherine in the Northern Territory is likely to be paid out next month, Shine Lawyers' Class Actions' practice leader, Joshua Aylward said.

After the court accepted 179 late registrations from Katherine, a total of $92.5 million will be divided between more than 1000 residents.

However legal fees have slashed that figure almost in half to just over $56 million.

Defence has duly paid $92.5 million into a trust account for distribution through Shine Lawyers which has been gathering interest, but residents have voiced concerns over the cuts to payment and ongoing delays.

Katherine Town Council reversed their position on joining the class action at the last minute, and as the biggest property owner is set to receive the biggest payment from the settlement.

Documents obtained by the Katherine Times show that one resident was set to receive $55,000, but the added additions to the class action have cut that by almost 50 per cent.

Other residents have told the Katherine Times their payments have been decreased by varying amounts around the 15 per cent mark, and some up to 30 and 40 per cent.

Joshua Aylward, Shine Lawyers' Class Actions' practice leader, said the settlement sum is divided based on the Settlement Distribution Scheme, which was approved by the court in June 2020 of last year.

"In short, group members receive compensation calculated as a percentage of their property value, and a fixed amount for inconvenience, distress and vexation," he said.

"The scheme also provides a review process whereby group members can review their proposed distribution."

"Once the review process has been completed, and payment details confirmed by all group members, the payments will be made. This is likely to occur in February 2021."

He said there were "various reasons" as to why certain payments had increased or decreased since the initial estimated distribution notice in May 2020, including the additional registrations, clarification of group member data, and reviews undertaken at the request of group members.

"For example, if a group member has now confirmed that they did not live at the property, or that the property does not have a bore, then this will reduce their final distribution amount," he said.

"Similarly, if upon review of their allocated property value, the value has increased, then there would be an increase in their distribution amount."

The class action was filed against the Department of Defence, and sought compensation for Katherine property owners for economic loss.

Katherine resident Anthony Bartlett has withstood a great burden since taking on a leading role in the fight against Defence, which has been accused of negligence and causing both environmental and economic damage.

He said the appeals process was also likely to be one of the major factors delaying payments, and said it was fair the courts allowed additions to the class action.

"I suppose people got more upset that the council had opted in on the last day, with them saying constantly that they weren't going to get involved in the class action," he said.

"It maybe made them take it more seriously."

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Despite years of intensive groundwork to get the class action off the ground, and many questions still left unanswered about the impacts of PFAS on the town and his family, Mr Bartlett said the compensation was a good outcome.

"Over four years we've had everyone from lawyers to state and federal representatives sit at this table and talk to us about what it means... going into this we really knew what to expect," he said.

"I think any money, other than nothing, is an advantage.

"It gives us options now, to what we can do now and into the future.

"This could have drawn out for six years or 10 years, and a lot of these class actions seem to do that... it was a quick resolution as opposed to what it could have been.

"If it went through court as well, it didn't mean that there was going to be any more money at the end of the day. It just means that it would have been more expensive from a legal perspective."

Mr Bartlett said he hoped the class action, which also won the community of Williamtown $86 million and Oakey $34 million, would set a precedent for future legal pursuits and drive down legal costs.

"It could have been handled better," he said.

"$52.5 million, that's just a mind blowing figure, but when you look at how much has been put into the defense of this case, and from the government's point of view, how much money they have invested leading up to what was an out of court settlement, I think that negotiations Initially could have been a lot better."

This story PFAS Class Action: $56m expected in February, concerns over cuts and delays first appeared on Katherine Times.