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Centro $200m legal deal a record

Date

Ben Butler, Leonie Wood, Georgia Wilkins

Settled ... PricewaterhouseCoopers will bear one third of Centro's bill, with the remainder divided between the entity that now owns all of the remaining Centro assets.

Settled ... PricewaterhouseCoopers will bear one third of Centro's bill, with the remainder divided between the entity that now owns all of the remaining Centro assets. Photo: Paul Rovere

SHAREHOLDERS have ended their epic legal stoush with the stricken Centro property group, striking a $200 million deal that is the largest securities class action settlement ever recorded in Australia.

Negotiations over the details of the settlement were continuing last night but sources said Centro's auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, are likely to bear about a third of the bill.

The rest is likely to be shared between the entity that now owns all of the Centro assets following a deal with creditors last year, Centro Retail Australia, and the two entities whose assets it acquired, Centro Properties Group and Centro Retail Group.

Yesterday's settlement, brokered by Melbourne solicitor Leon Zwier of Arnold Bloch Leibler, brings to an end a Federal Court trial costing an estimated $1.2 million a week that had been running since early March and was set to continue until the end of June.

It follows PwC's admission to the court last month that it had breached its duty of care to Centro and warnings from the judge hearing the trial, Justice Michelle Gordon, that she was considering ordering lawyers for PwC to personally pay the costs of the case.

Centro was one of the first major companies to collapse after financial markets peaked in late 2007.

Shares of what was once the world's second-biggest shopping centre owner, behind Westfield, fell more than 90 per cent in a single day after Centro's then chief executive Andrew Scott revealed a failure to disclose the full extent of its debt.

Shareholders, represented by law firms Maurice Blackburn and Slater & Gordon, alleged Mr Scott and his fellow directors failed in their duties when they wrongly classified $3.1 billion of debt as long-term in its 2007-08 accounts.

The property group joined PwC to the lawsuit, alleging the audit was deficient. PwC returned fire by counter-suing Centro and its executives, who it claimed gave insufficient information to audit partner Stephen Cougle.

Professor Ian Ramsay of the University of Melbourne's law school said the settlement would be the largest in Australian legal history and would set a precedent for shareholder class actions.

''It really is a major settlement, a groundbreaking settlement, in terms of dollar value,'' Professor Ramsay said.

''Of course it is critical to know who contributes what. And, of course, the other issue is the very high legal costs that have occurred to take us through to today.''

Professor Ramsay said the previous benchmark was set by Aristocrat in 2008 with its settlement of $144 million.

Other recent big settlements include the 2003 GIO deal for $112 million and Multiplex's 2010 settlement of $110 million.





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