The Herald's opinion: Light rail class actions will attract political, legal interest

Angela Vithoulkas in Newcastle.
Angela Vithoulkas in Newcastle.

The last thing Newcastle’s inner-city traders need right now are empty promises.

About 50 of them gathered at Customs House on Saturday to hear Sydney businesswoman and state Upper House hopeful Angela Vithoulkas outline plans for a class action against the state government after more than seven months of light rail disruption in the CBD. 

Ms Vithoulkas, who is a City of Sydney councillor and will contest the NSW election in March under the banner of her own Small Business Party, said she was there to fight for the Newcastle traders.

Most of those present signed registration forms with the group of lawyers she brought from Sydney. She also arrived with her own team of helpers decked out in black “Save Small Business” T-shirts.

At the end of her speech she urged the crowd to vote for her in March. Novocastrians are traditionally cynical about anyone with a political pitch, but the traders gave her an enthusiastic reception. They even clapped the lawyer.

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These business people clearly want someone on their side after months of feeling neglected, and Ms Vithoulkas is a feisty advocate.

She has started a similar class action in Sydney and is waging a campaign on behalf of 23 north coast road subcontractors left out of pocket when construction firm Ostwald Bros went bust last year.

She is staking her political reputation on being able to help small business, and she will hope the lawyers can get a result in the Sydney and Newcastle class actions.

Both cases are relying on third-party litigation funders to stump up the money to fight the government and absorb the risk of an adverse ruling on costs if they lose. If they win, the lawyers and funders likely will take a large share of the payout. 

The twin cases – if indeed they proceed – will be closely watched in political and legal circles, especially with an election looming and the government facing multiple lawsuits from light rail contractors in Sydney.

The government will no doubt argue that it is obliged to build infrastructure to benefit its constituents and should be free to do so without fear of being sued. The class-action lawyers argue the state has mismanaged both projects and caused foreseeable harm. 

Whatever the outcome, the fallout from the government’s decision to run trams down Hunter Street and not the old rail corridor promises to continue.   

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