A property owner who lit a campfire in a tree stump on her land, which led to one of Tasmania's largest bushfires, has been found liable for negligence and private nuisance to some 400 plaintiffs.
Justice Stephen Estcourt handed down his decision in the Supreme Court on Friday in what is one of the biggest civil cases in the state, and awarded $300,000 in damages to the first plaintiff.
"The first defendant is liable to the test case plaintiff for damages in negligence and for private nuisance. It also follows in principal that she should be liable to each of the other plaintiffs in negligence and private nuisance subject to proof of damage," Justice Estcourt said.
The case involved the test plaintiff Sonia Daly who lost her home in Dunalley, and up to 400 other plaintiffs who lost homes and suffered property damage in a bushfire that burned 25,520 hectares.
The insurance companies of the plaintiffs started the action against the insurance companies of the defendants.
Evidence established that a campfire lit in an old tree stump by the first defendant Melissa Jane Barratt and the second defendant on December 28 continued to remain alight and smouldered into the roots, causing a grass fire that then escaped.
The judgement said that Ms Barratt looked out towards the old stump and saw the grass around it on fire.
"It was a hot, windy day and the plaintiffs' case is that the gusty wind, blowing from the west-northwest, drove the fire immediately into a steep, wooded gully to the south and east of the Barrett residence. The fire then spread rapidly to the east and southeast of Forcett, through Dunalley and eventually across much of the Tasman Peninsula, even jumping across Eaglehawk Neck to the Taranna area."
The plaintiffs argued that Ms Barratt and the second defendant were negligent and breached a duty of care in lighting the fire, failing to extinguish the fire, failing to inspect the fire stump after December 28, and then failed to respond when steam was seen escaping the stump on January 1.
Justice Estcourt agreed, finding negligence in the initial lighting of the camp fire, the "paltry efforts" to extinguish the fire, and negligence by Ms Barratt "in her response to her observation of steam rising from the stump after a light rainfall on 1 (or perhaps 2) January 2013".
In parts of the judgment Justice Estcourt said he accepted the plaintiff's submission that Ms Barratt had awareness not only of the general risks of fire on her property.
He said she knew of the specific risk that a campfire lit in the old stump could result in "a hard-to-detect continuing burn somewhere within the structure, that could re-emerge to create the risk of a wildfire."