Williamtown and Oakey residents eye mediation as trial date set for class action

WAGING WAR: Residents of the Williamtown 'red zone' outside the Federal Court of Australia. Gavin and Kim Smith, centre, are the lead applicants in the case against Defence and will allege it failed in its duty of care to residents.
WAGING WAR: Residents of the Williamtown 'red zone' outside the Federal Court of Australia. Gavin and Kim Smith, centre, are the lead applicants in the case against Defence and will allege it failed in its duty of care to residents.

A trial date of late 2019 has been set down for class actions over firefighting contamination that has tainted hundreds of properties surrounding Defence bases at Williamtown and Oakey. 

But it remains unclear whether the two cases will run together or seperately - despite both revolving around Defence's use of toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals [PFAS] - with Justice Jayne Jagot reserving a decision. 

The matter was heard in the Federal Court in Sydney on Wednesday, where Dentons, the law firm representing Williamtown residents, asked for an initial hearing to settle key questions prior to the trial.

Ground covered would have included the chemicals’ toxicity, human exposure pathways, Defence’s handling of firefighting foam and whether it took “reasonable precautions” to prevent risk of harm to residents and businesses.

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However in a setback for members of the action, Justice Jagot did not grant the request, ordering that the case go to a full trial in September or October 2019. 

There would be an opportunity for mediation once evidence was served by the end of August this year, she said. 

Residents welcomed the timeline and were hopeful mediation might bring the case to an early settlement. 

“Finally we have clarity on the timing of the court process, which is welcome,” said Lindsay Clout of the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group. 

“More welcome is the opportunity for the first time to directly engage in mediation with the polluter, being Defence, so that we can get on with our lives. 

“Given their recent statements on their concern for the community, we expect Defence will be wanting any mediation to occur quickly and constructively.”  

In-house Commonwealth solicitors are defending the Williamtown action, while the government has enlisted global firm King & Wood Mallesons to defend the Oakey case. 

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