Ambulance chaser is one of many derogatory terms used to describe lawyers, but for those practising at one Melbourne firm, it could take on a more literal meaning if a class action into failures at Victoria’s triple zero authority takes place.
Law firm Slater and Gordon announced on Tuesday that they are launching a class action investigation into Victoria’s Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) who have responsibility for the triple zero emergency hotline, over what it calls ‘systemic failures’ that have led to at least 15 deaths since October.
If the investigation finds enough evidence for a class action lawsuit, their lawyers won’t be chasing ambulances, but rather those charged with dispatching them, and the state government for millions of dollars in compensation.
ESTA has been in a state of emergency itself for a long time, plagued by staff shortages, system failures, and ballooning response times. Like most parts of the health system, the service was badly affected by COVID-19, but in announcing its investigation, Slater and Gordon trace the problems back to 2014.
But it’s since October last year that things have really gotten out of hand. Since then, at least 15 people are estimated to have died after their calls to the hotline went unanswered or were picked up too late.
They include 14-year-old Alisha Hussein who died after her family waited for 15 minutes for their triple-zero call to be answered following an asthma attack. A 23-month-old girl drowned after her family were forced to drive to a nearby medical centre after multiple triple-zero calls didn’t connect. These and other stories were detailed earlier this year by The Age newspaper and 60 Minutes.
While this was going on, a review of the operations of the ESTA was already underway.
The report, by former Victorian Police Commissioner, Graham Ashton, was handed to the Government in March, but only released to the public last week, with the State Opposition claiming this was done under the cover of the Federal Election. Premier Daniel Andrews repeatedly refused to confirm if he had read the report, calling questions on the subject ‘political games’, which, under the circumstances is cowardly and adds to his list of cover-ups and backroom deals. Plus, he knew the system was failing. However, two of its key recommendations have already been enacted, with ESTA renamed Triple-Zero Victoria and its board of directors replaced. $115 million in extra funding for 120 new call takers was also included in the recent State Budget. An odd thing to happen to an unread report.
A separate review of the deaths is currently being conducted by Victoria’s Inspector-General for Emergency Management, Tony Pearce, and a report is due in August.
While acknowledging ESTA’s longstanding system issues, Slater and Gordon’s class action investigation, like the Inspector-General’s report and The Age and 60 Minutes stories, focuses on events that have occurred since October 2021.
Of particular interest are Code 1 cases – where urgent assistance is needed and ambulances with lights and sirens are to be dispatched as soon as possible but were instead unanswered or met with significant delays.
‘We believe ESTA has breached its statutory and common law obligations by not providing its required service when callers expect to be connected to urgent medical help in a timely manner’ said Slater and Gordon’s class actions Senior Associate, Gemma Leigh-Dodds.
‘We are investigating whether family members of those whose loved ones have died due to ESTA call-taking and dispatch delays are entitled to damages for nervous shock and economic loss’.
Along with people who have lost loved ones, the law firm is also encouraging anyone who has suffered physical or psychological injuries due to failures with the triple-zero service to contribute to the investigation.
Slater and Gordon are already representing a number of individual clients who have suffered injury due to failures in the emergency contact system and stress that paramedics are not the target of their investigation.
Slater and Gordon
Class action lawsuits have been on the increase since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Victorian Government was last year successful in having one class action brought against it over lockdown restrictions, thrown out. But the Hotel Quarantine class action is ongoing and will be heard again in the Supreme Court on June 7 by Justice Dixon, despite the Andrews Government trying to put the kibosh on it in April. And there are currently two class actions and one investigation being brought against aged care providers over deaths that occurred during the pandemic. Fun times ahead for Dan and co.
Slater and Gordon are one of the heavyweights of Australian class action lawsuits, having secured a then record $42 million dollars in compensation for 5000 ‘mum and dad’ investors against property group, Centro, in 2012.
Uniquely, Slater and Gordon have also been on the receiving end of class actions themselves. A publicly traded company, in 2017 Slater and Gordon settled a $36 million class action brought by shareholders after a series of scandals, write-downs and losses.
The law firm also has close links to the ALP, with former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, among its alumni. And with the Andrews Labor government up for re-election in November, a class action into the triple zero service could test those links to the limit.