Written by Peter Carter

Updated on July 21, 2020

Justin and Melissa Anderson peacefully rang in this New Year at Barrington Tops relishing the isolation and absence of phone contact.
The day before celebrations for the start of 2011 were to begin – something they would only become aware of when they arrived back 5 days later- a fire started in the meter box of their home 90km to the south and substantially destroyed the house.

Unable to reach the owners in the National Park, the NSW Fire service made contact with the Melissa’s mother Christine at her Nelson Bay home.

She and husband Peter – an electrical contractor – rushed to the home north of Newcastle and provided the statement to police.

Christine had been the former owner of the home and in August 2007 – the same year the couple began residing there – husband Peter installed electrical wiring on the property and a three meter control box.

In late November 2010, the Andersons phoned their electricity retailer because an electricity bill just received was higher than expected.

Ausgrid identified an error in one of the meters and scheduled a callout for a technician to replace it.

Senior Electrical Inspector Anthony Lawrence who investigated the following day. He observed a burnt orange conduit leading from the mains supply to the meter box and postulated “a stone or moisture in the conduit” as possible causes, noting that it might take years before such damage might lead to electrical arcing.

CGU insurance sent its own investigator Stuart Ritchie who noted “the most severe manifestation of the fire damage was inside the meter box” and saw no sign of arcing between the cable and its entry point through holes in the bottom of the box.

The insurer paid the claim for property damages and other losses including alternative accommodation at $820k and then sued Augrid in the Andersons name to recover its payout.

The NSW Supreme Court was confronted with two competing theories.

The first – advanced by CGU and another its expert Dr Grantham – was that the arcing was likely due to the establishment of a poor connection when the meter was replaced just a little over a month earlier.

The second – pushed by Ausgrid – put the arcing at the port of entry of the cable into the meter box, something for which Melissa’s stepfather Peter, was responsible more than three years previously.

Justice Christine Adamson had no reservations in holding Peter Belcher’s account of having “enclosed the cables within the conduit to protect from contact with the box” as being truthful.

The judge was satisfied of his recollection of that particular job – notwithstanding the passage of time – “because he intended to live in the residence himself and with his wife to be”.

And given the concession by the technician who performed the November 2010 meter replacement that the wiring may not have been sufficiently tightened to ensure the best possible electrical contact, her Honour attributed the “arcing” to a build-up of electrical resistance and heat from the poor connection that occurred.

The power supplier – who in any event retained ownership of the meters – was ordered to re-pay the $820k paid by the insurer.

Anderson v Ausgrid [2015] NSWSC 1308 Adamson J, 9/09/2015 – view decision

Categories: Litigation & Law Practice

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