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SP AusNet’s lawyers stopped chief maintenance man from investigating cause of catastrophic Black Saturday fire

Lawyers for SP AusNet – the electricity company accused of starting the devastating Kilmore East/Kinglake Black Saturday bushfire in 2009 by the poor maintenance of its powerlines – blocked the Chief Maintenance officer from accessing important information that would have enabled him to make the powerlines safer for the community, the Supreme Court has heard.

SP AusNet’s in-house lawyers and its external lawyers Freehills, instructed SP AusNet’s Chief of Maintenance Denis McCrohan not to look into the cause of the 2009 Kilmore East/Kinglake Black Saturday bushfire before giving evidence, the Supreme Court has heard during this week’s hearings into the bushfire class action.

The Supreme Court has heard this morning from Mr McCrohan, that, “as a result”, since Black Saturday there have been “no changes to the procedures and processes” that SP AusNet has in place to minimise the risk of another devastating fire.

Despite being quarantined from discussing with his colleagues the reason for the failure of the conductor which broke on Black Saturday and started the Kilmore East/Kinglake fire which killed 119 people, Mr McCrohan has been giving evidence in the class action on the likely cause of the break of the conductor which started the fire.

In his evidence, Mr McCrohan said that the main investigation into why the line broke would have been conducted by SP AusNet’s engineering team, headed by Mr Saman De Silva, and that he was instructed by SP AusNet’s lawyers not to talk to Mr De Silva or his team about their investigation.

While putting Mr McCrohan forward as a witness in the class action trial, SP AusNet has effectively muzzled its Head of Engineering Mr De Silva, refusing to call him as a witness.

Under cross-examination as part of the class action currently underway on behalf of 10,000 victims of the fire, Mr McCrohan told the court that SP AusNet’s lawyers instructed him specifically not to look into any maintenance issues related to the fire, despite the fact that he was responsible for trying to minimise the risk of SP AusNet’s powerlines failing.

Mr McCrohan confirmed that before giving his evidence, the “only people” he had spoken to about the cause of the fire were SP AusNet’s lawyers involved in defending the class action proceedings.

When Counsel for the plaintiff, Tim Tobin SC, put to Mr McCrohan that he approached the legal team rather than talked to linesmen, line engineers or even the inspection company about the cause of the fault in the line which ignited the fire, Mr McCrohan said:

For this particular incident, that's exactly what happened, in actual fact, they (the legal team) came to me.

Under further questioning about why he didn’t make inquiries relevant to further failure mitigation for SP AusNet, Mr McCrohan responded:

All the other instances we look into... this one site I didn't look into because I was instructed not to, we had other people doing that.” Mr McCrohan confirmed that the “other people” were Mr De Silva and his team.

In response, Mr Tobin SC suggested to Mr McCrohan that he could have done more, saying:

At times you can say to lawyers, "Go to hell. My job is to look at the security of this system. We have just had 120 die. Do you want me to sit on my hands and do nothing about it?‟

Martin Hyde from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, which is representing the class action group members, says ring-fencing its Head of Maintenance from everyone but lawyers, coupled with a refusal to call the Head of Engineering Mr de Silva, whose group led the investigation, raises very serious questions about the conduct of SP AusNet.

“These revelations suggest that SP AusNet’s focus remains on self-protection and minimising the amount that it may have to pay out to victims of Kilmore East/Kinglake bushfire rather than taking all practical steps to protect the community,” Mr Hyde said.

Mr Tobin’s cross-examination of Mr McCrohan continues.