Erin Brockovich-Backed Aussie Class Action Could Set Dangerous Precedent
Up to 40,000 Australians who live on land contaminated by PFAS, a toxic compound, are set to sue the government, alleging that their properties have been severely devalued due to contamination.
The Department of Defence used firefighting foams containing PFAS extensively at defence bases across the country before 2004, when they began phasing out their usage.
Legal experts, such as Professor Michael Legg of the University of New South Wales, say it’s too early to speculate the outcome of the case, but if it is successful, it may clear the way for similar cases in the future.
“The real precedent is the finding of whether this chemical is harmful, whether it can have ramifications on those who have been exposed.”
“The finding may have an environmental overtone if someone does something on their property, and it leaches onto others, are they held liable?” Professor Legg asked.
Legg said this case could set a precedent for future class-action lawsuits.
“If you think of an industrial setting, chemicals are used, pollutants are used, leaching into surrounding properties, are they liable?” Legg said.
PFAS is a synthetic compound that was widely used in firefighting worldwide from the 1970s to the 2000s. Studies in the United States have linked PFAS chemicals to thyroid and kidney cancer, among other health issues.
In 2018, a government inquiry into the management of PFAS in the land surrounding defence bases recommended the government provide full compensation to those who had been affected by PFAS contamination.
Shine Lawyers, who are set to represent the 40,000 Australians affected by PFAS contamination, have already launched two other class actions on behalf of residents in Katherine and Oakley living on PFAS contaminated land.
“The outcome, we hope will be that the commonwealth will be found liable for the use of these chemicals and the contamination that has spread to the people in these communities,” Josh Aylward, lead counsel with Shine Lawyers, said.
Shine Lawyers enlisted the help of well-known activist Erin Brockovich, who said she is “dumbfounded” by what she describes as inaction by the Australian government.
Experts such as Monash University Professor of Business Law and Taxation Vince Morabito fear that the government may tighten laws surrounding class action lawsuits to make it more difficult for people to sue the government and businesses
“What concerns me is that in the current climate, changes are likely to be made to the law, likely due to perception rather than reality,” Professor Morabito said.
According to Legg there is a big-business push to make it harder to bring forward class actions,” Professor Legg said.
“Class action is supposed to permit equal access to justice for those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve compensation,” he said.
Eight locations where a defence base was located are expected to be involved with the class action, including:
- Bullsbrook, WA
- Darwin, NT
- Edinburgh, SA
- Richmond, NSW
- Townsville, Qld (two bases)
- Wagga Wagga, NSW
- Wodonga, Vic