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State govt awards ultramarathon victims $450k
Ultramarathon burns victim Turia Pitt appearing at the inquiry. Picture: Michael Wilson / The West Australian.

Update, 4.45pm: The State Government will make an "act of grace" payment of $450,000 each to Kimberley ultramarathon burns victims Turia Pitt and Kate Sanderson, Tourism Minister Kim Hames has announced.

Dr Hames this afternoon tabled the Government’s response to an inquiry report into last year’s ill-fated event.

He told Parliament that State Solicitor’s advice did not support making an ex-gratia payment to any event participant and that the Government rejected its departments or agencies were responsible for what occurred.

However, having regard to the inquiry’s recommendation for an ex-gratia payment, the "gravity and extent of the injuries suffered by Ms Pitt and Ms Sanderson and the uncertainty of any other act of legal redress available to them, an act of grace payment is appropriate".

“This act of grace payment is intended to assist in alleviating the financial stress facing Ms Pitt and Ms Sanderson,” he said.

“As previously mentioned, the payment is in recognition of the extreme injuries each participant received during the Kimberley Ultramarathon only.”

Turia Pitt, 24, and Kate Sanderson, 36, sustained life-threatening burns when a fire swept through the race course on September 2 last year.

Another two competitors, Michael Hull and Martin Van Der Merwe, were also burnt.

In August a parliamentary committee report found race organiser, Hong Kong-based company Racing the Planet, did not take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of event participants.

It also found “serious flaws” in event sponsor Tourism WA’s event assessment processes and criticised the “inaccurate” information provided to the TWA Board and Minister about the event.

Committee chairman, Liberal MP Mike Nahan, said at the time it had made no findings of legal liability but argued there was a “strong, moral case” to give urgent consideration to ex-gratia payments to injured runners.

Dr Hames said today that while preparing its response to the committee report, the Government sought State Solicitor’s Office advice, which “did not support the making of an ex-gratia payment to any event participants”.

He confirmed after questioning from the Opposition that Ms Pitt and Ms Sanderson had made applications for significantly more than $450,000.

“The Government’s decision to provide an act of grace payment, instead of an Ex Gratia payment, is not to be understood to be an acceptance of any legal, causal or moral responsibility to compensate the athletes who participated in the event and, in particular, that there is any responsibility arising from the commercial relationship Tourism WA entered into with the event organiser, Racing The Planet,” he said.

“Moreover, the Western Australian Government rejects any contention that actions or conduct by any department or agency of the State in any way contributed to the injuries sustained by ultramarathon participants.”

Dr Hames said while the Government was sympathetic to the injuries of other competitions, it was of the view “that their circumstances are not so extraordinary as to warrant an act of grace payment”.

“I would like to commend Miss Pitt and Miss Sanderson for the enormous courage and resilience they have both demonstrated in the face of their devastating injuries,” he said.

Ms Sanderson’s brother, Ian said the payment was welcomed but he estimated 10 times the amount was needed given his sister’s injuries.

“I believe Kate will be extremely grateful for the gesture that has been made by the WA Government today, although we do recognise that it falls a long, long way short of her needs for the rest of her life,” she said.

Mr Sanderson said his sister would have to consider the Government’s payment and response before deciding on any legal action.

“I would like to think that Racing the Planet might finally, after a year of denial, actually come round and accept the fact that they do have a responsibility and do something about it,” he said.

He said before the response was tabled in Parliament that he always hoped lessons were learnt from the tragedy.

“Making sure that future events will be run in a much safer but better environment,” he said.

Racing the Planet has been contacted for comment.

Shadow tourism minister Michelle Roberts said the payment was inadequate.

She said contrary to the Government’s position, it was a Government-sponsored event through Tourism WA events arm, Eventscorp, that was held partly on Crown land.

She said Ms Pitt was brought in by at the last minute by Racing the Planet to satisfy the trigger of 40 runners for Government funding.

“The fact of the matter is these girls’ lives have been wrecked and they’ve been wrecked at an event sponsored by the West Australian Government,” she said.

Ms Roberts declined to put a figure on what an appropriate payment would be, but said she had thought $1 million or more would have been awarded.

She said victims should not have to go through a legal process to prove that the State owed them more than $450,000.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the community about this issue,” she said.

“Just about all of them have said to me ‘we don’t mind our taxpayers’ money being used to help these girls get on with their lives,” she said.

“The Government is being very mean-spirited here. Clearly $450,000 won’t be adequate.”

In its response, the Government supported six recommendations, including tighter controls around Tourism WA sponsorship, use of Crown land and a uniform protocol for calls to emergency services.

It partly supported a further six recommendations but did not support three, including giving the Coroner jurisdiction to investigate fires that don’t cause death and expanding Local Emergency Management Committee processes to include reviewing and advising on proposals for higher risk and adventure sporting events.

Lawyer Greg Walsh, who is acting for Ms Pitt, Mr Van Der Merwe and his son Shaun Van Der Merwe, Mr Hull and Hal Benson is now giving a press conference in Sydney.

In August he said they were planning to sue race organisers for “in excess of $10 million”.

However, to date no writ has been lodged in the courts.