The Federal Court has approved an historic $212 million class action settlement for PFAS contamination caused by the Commonwealth at Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine.
On a day of high drama, Justice Micheal Lee also rebuked Williamtown steering committee members for mocking Oakey class action members on Facebook. He also reduced the amount the steering committee will receive.
During a judgment delivered following a marathon two-day hearing Justice Lee acknowledged the court's approval of the settlement may feel like a hollow victory for those who had suffered significant loss and damage.
"Whatever I do there will be people who will be disappointed with the outcome," Justice Lee said.
But ultimately he said the proposed settlement represented a fair and reasonable compensation package.
Justice Lee said the "extraordinary" and "complex" case had attracted more interest than any comparable matter.
From the $212 million settlement, $86 million will be taken in costs.
The litigation funder, Omni Bridgeway, will take $53.1 million in profits and $940,000 to cover its out-of-pocket costs.
More reading: The Katherine decision.
The lawyers, from Dentons and Shine, will receive $30.1 million to cover their costs. About $2 million will go to an administrator who will distribute the settlement.
Justice Lee repeatedly expressed concern at the costs to be taken by lawyers and funders: "As a headline figure I don't think anyone disputes that these settlement figures would cause an adverse reaction from a group member's perspective," he said.
"What is the source of concern is the extent of the deductions and how that money is divided up among group members."
Over the course of the hearing Justice Lee repeatedly expressed the view that it would have been more efficient and cost effective to have run a single class action rather than three.
"The reason I feel a degree of frustration about this is that the reason for running it as individual proceedings seems far more directed at the convenience of the funder and the lawyers rather than the people involved."
In response, Williamtown legal representative Ian Pike and William Edwards who represented Oakey and Katherine class action members, argued the cases had been run as efficiently as possible since 2016.
Mr Pike said the final settlement terms ultimately represented good value for class action members.
"I'll say it now and I will repeat it a few times, in my view this is a good settlement when one considers all of the risks both legal and factual that are attached to it," he said.
The proposed $20,000 payment to each of the 12 Williamtown steering committee members was also the subject of significant scrutiny.
The court heard the committee members had invested hundreds of hours for the benefit of the group over the past six years.
"I'm not seeking in the least to minimise the work of the steering committee and no doubt they performed a valuable function, but the issue is that every cent that goes on these sort of payments is another cent that doesn't go to the people who have suffered loss and damage that they allege they have suffered. To use a horse racing expression, this starts to look like a bit of a sling," Justice Lee said.
At the start of Friday's proceedings Justice Lee expressed outrage at Facebook comments attributed to committee members that "mocked and ridiculed" Oakey group members while they were giving evidence to the court on Thursday.
"It's a source of some concern to me that someone holding a representative capacity and acting as a party to the proceeding and looking after the interests of persons in the Williamtown proceeding could act in such a way in relation to people who are giving accounts of their vexation and concern about what has occurred to them," Justice Lee said.
"It makes me wonder whether the bad blood that appears to have arisen in Williamtown may have some deeper currents of which I am currently unaware if people are capable of conducting themselves in that way."
Mr Pike, on behalf of the steering committee, later apologised for the comments.
During his judgment Justice Lee described the proposed $20,000 payments as 'excessive' and ordered an administrator distribute a sum of $120,000 among the steering committee members.
Justice Lee will deliver the full reasons for his judgment in writing.
- courtesy Newcastle Herald.