Costs Carve $53M Out of $212M PFAS Payout

By AAP
June 16, 2020 Updated: June 16, 2020

A federal judge says some people will be disappointed he approved a $212.5 million class-action settlement over chemical contamination at three Defence bases.

But finality is highly desirable for residents and business owners near Royal Australian Air Force bases in NSW’s Williamtown, the Northern Territory’s Katherine and Queensland’s Oakey, Federal Court Justice Michael Lee said on Tuesday.

“Whatever I do, there will be people who will be disappointed in the outcome,” the judge said, noting about 75 objections were received by the court.

“Whatever the subjective reaction, finality is highly desirable and it is in the interests of both persons who will be pleased, and also those that will be disappointed, for them to know the outcome and hence for them to be able move on (to the extent possible).”

Hundreds of residents, landowners and business owners near the bases had alleged firefighting foam used by the RAAF contained PFAS and damaged the environment, affected health and that its use was unreasonable.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) is a group of chemicals used in firefighting foam that remain in the environment for years and can be passed through breast milk.

Firefighting foams containing PFAS were used during training and emergency responses across the nation until the mid-2000s. 

Class action members will share about $125 million after the litigation funder takes its cut of $53.1 million and money is set aside to cover legal and administration costs.

For some, the settlement was like a cloud lifting, but for others the perception of an inadequate figure only further exacerbated “the injustice they already keenly feel,” Justice Lee said.

One woman backing the settlement told the court her family had abandoned their mortgaged home while her 10-month-old daughter had returned PFAS levels three times higher than her own.

“We have been living this nightmare now for five years,” NSW woman Samantha Kelly said.

“Settlement will provide our young family with fair and reasonable compensation for our losses and offer us hope for the future.”

Justice Lee acknowledged the concern over the amount going to legal and funding fees and said he harboured some disquiet about the fact there were three class actions when they could have been combined.

But he said the total figure was very high to comparable settlements, the case was run efficiently and litigation funding was an important element of class actions.

“It strains credulity to think that claims of this complexity and attended by such potential expense could have been litigated to a conclusion without third-party funding of some sort,” he said.

By Luke Costin