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Monday, August 2, 2021

Families of children killed in Villaggio fire file lawsuits in US, Qatar

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Memorial for Villaggio fire victims on second anniversary of deaths.
Memorial for Villaggio fire victims on second anniversary of deaths.

 

Updated on June 3 with details of the Qatar lawsuit

Translation by Riham Sheble

The parents of 13 children and one nursery teacher who died in the 2012 Villaggio fire have filed multi-million dollar lawsuits against the mall’s architects, developers, consultants and management firm, in addition to several other companies based in the US and Qatar.

The civil suits were filed on Thursday, May 28 – exactly three years after the blaze – with the Los Angeles Superior Court in California, and Qatar’s court of first instance.

The Qatar suit is calling for QR280 million (approximately $77 million) in compensation and damages for each of the victims – significantly more than has been sought in other recent civil cases filed in the state.

The US suit described the continuing operations of the popular mall as a “waking nightmare” for the families.

Villaggio fire damage
Villaggio fire damage

In all, 19 people died of smoke asphyxiation during the fire, including all the children who were trapped in upstairs daycare Gympanzee at the time, four staff nursery staff and two firefighters who tried to rescue them.

The smoke had spread after a fire broke out in the upstairs storeroom of the adjacent Nike sports shop.

The US lawsuit argues that the companies being sued “engaged in willful, wanton and reckless disregard” for the lives and safety of those who died in the fire.

It alleges wrongful death, negligence, survival action for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress on behalf of some of the families of the victims who died.

The US documents do not specify the monetary amount that the families are suing for, but calls on the firms to pay for general and punitive damages.

The suit also seeks compensation for funeral and burial expenses, medical and legal costs and lost earnings for the past, present and future.

‘Fatal mistakes’

The California lawsuit names three defendants: F+A Architects, a Pasadena-based company that designed Villaggio; Business Trading Company (BTC), a Qatar firm that developed and managed the mall operations; and White Young Qatar, described as the project manager and contributing architect and engineer for the mall.

“The fire was a result of numerous fatal mistakes on the part of the defendants,” the suit states.

The action claims that “the fire and the resulting deaths were, by all accounts, preventable” and says that the fire control and suppression systems designed by F+A and White Young “wholly failed” at the time of the fire and its aftermath.

According to an official investigation, Nike employees noticed and failed to put out a fire that began in the mezzanine due to faulty electrical wiring in a fluorescent light, which led to the ignition of its plastics components before spreading to flammable materials.

Villaggio Mall
Villaggio Mall

Civil Defense officers testified during the criminal trial that a highly flammable paint in Villaggio’s decorations caused the fire to spread quickly and made it more difficult to contain.

The officers asserted that the chemical, which Villaggio had been repeatedly fined for using prior to the fire, coupled with smoldering clothes from the Nike store, caused the heavy smoke that spread to the nearby play area, asphyxiating those inside.

Other issues within the mall also hindered rescue operations, the lawsuit said:

“The fans that were intended to remove smoke in the event of a fire instead forced smoke back into the mall. The fire alarms selected by the designers were inaudible or sounded like a faint doorbell. The smoke vents did not function properly, if at all. The sprinkler system failed. The fire hoses in the mall were too short to reach the sporting goods store or Gympanzee. The fire soon raged out of control and poisonous smoke permeated the mall.”

The lawsuit also cited previous court testimony that stated the children and Gympanzee employees were told by BTC staff to remain inside the nursery when the fire broke out; that mall operators didn’t tell firefighters there were children trapped inside the building; and that they were unable to offer a map of the mall or give them a location for the daycare.

Day after the Villaggio fire.
Day after the Villaggio fire.

The lack of a mall map also delayed fire crews when they attempted to cut through the roof of the mall to try to rescue the trapped children, the lawsuit states.

When responders finally gained access to the mall and nursery, they were too late to save the victims.

Grim scene

A deceased firefighter was found just outside Gympanzee. Some of the children were found tucked inside the shirts of the staffers, including teacher Shameega Charles, who had tried to protect them from the smoke.

Shameega Charles' son remembers her three years after her death.
Shameega Charles’ son remembers her three years after her death.

Charles’ mother Maryam is cited as one of the plaintiffs in the case.

She was dependent on her daughter to provide for her and her grandson.

“The families have suffered substantial pecuniary and emotional losses, including loss of society, companionship and services,” the suit states.

BTC and its agents, it claims, was responsible for “gross violations of industry standards” relating to the poor operation of the fire and smoke detection and response systems in the mall.

“At all relevant times, defendant BTC negligently maintained and operated the mall so as to create a substantial and unreasonable risk that serious injury or death would result in the foreseeable event of a fire,” the claims states.

The company also failed to properly train its staff to respond appropriately in emergencies, did not ensure its exits were open and kept clear and had not registered Gympanzee as a nursery with the Ministry of Business and Trade (now called Ministry of Economy and Commerce).

Meanwhile, White Young is accused of designing a fire system that was “wholly inadequate” and for selecting interior decoration materials for the mall design made of flammable polysterene. The chemical melted during the fire, was difficult to extinguish and emitted “fast-spreading and toxic smoke,” the suit said.

Qatar case

A total of 12 companies are cited as defendants in the legal documents filed with the Qatar court. In addition to F+A, BTC and White Young, the others being sued are:

  • Qatari Company for Real Estate and Commercial Projects, which the suit argues was in charge of sponsoring the mall and was responsible for ensuring the mall was safely designed
  • Gympanzee, which is claimed should have registered itself as a nursery and given its employees training in emergency situations;
  • Sun and Sands Sports Qatar. This company should have stored its merchandise in a proper and safe manner, used safe light fixtures and maintained its fire protection and control systems, the suit argues;
  • Voltas Qatar, the subcontractor said to be responsible for building, designing and maintaining the mall fire systems;
  • Qatari Engineer and Assistants Company, said to be the consultant engineer for the mall;
  • Intertech Group Ltd, said to be responsible for contracts for internal designs and the fire-resistant internal gypsum designs;
  • International for Decorations and Building, which was also claimed to be responsible for internal designs;
  • Paint companies Jotun and Hempel, which should have supplied safe, non-flammable, non-toxic paints, the claim argues.

The families are claiming QR165 million (approximately $45 million) per victim in compensation for emotional and material damage, and a further QR115 million (approximately $31 million) per victim for the suffering of those who died.

The Qatar suit argues that “no one would have died had everyone carried out their duty” and that the deaths happened because of “human mistakes resulting from laziness, negligence and the desire to cut corners and save expenses”.

Current proceedings

The civil lawsuits come at a time when criminal court proceedings may finally be wrapping up.

Following a trial, five of seven defendants –  including two mall officials, a government employee and the owners of the Gympanzee daycare – were found guilty of manslaughter in June 2013 and face five to six years in jail.

However, they remain out of prison pending an appeal hearing, which has taken nearly two years and is due to close this month. A verdict may not be issued until after the summer recess.

Some of the families have previously initiated civil proceedings in Qatar against the defendants to collect blood money compensation, but the majority of these claims have been frozen pending the outcome of the criminal case.

Thoughts?

26 COMMENTS

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A_qtr
A_qtr
6 years ago

Didn’t read the whole article. But how are the mall architects to blame here? It’s the mall management who poorly managed the safety requirements.

Also I think Nike itself should be included given it was cheap lighting and poor training of its staff which caused the fire

In addition to the nursery and mall mgt I think the MoI and Fire Dept also be partly responsible… Where were their fire checks and inspections prior to the fire? Was there even an inspection? If so what were the points raised and did they follow throw with the inspection …

AEC
AEC
6 years ago
Reply to  A_qtr

They signed it off as completed to appropriate standards when it wasn’t.

The Reporter
The Reporter
6 years ago
Reply to  AEC

That’s what the indictment seems to suggest, but it’s just an easy shot to take if you want kick-start a lawsuit..The devil will be in the detail of who was responsible for sign-off, what they signed off, and what might have changed after sign-off. Then as I say, comes the thorny question of maintenance.

The Reporter
The Reporter
6 years ago
Reply to  A_qtr

They seem to be suggesting that the architects specified incorrect materials (in escape areas which must be Class A1 non-flammable?) and that the engineers under-specified the safety systems. Given the names of the consultant firms and their blue-chip reputations I’d be stunned if that were the case. Wait till we find out what alterations were carried out after the building was handed over to the owner and the management team, and lets see what comes up when they check the maintenance records for all the technical/safety systems in the building – something that I haven’t yet seen mentioned.

QVision
QVision
6 years ago
Reply to  The Reporter

Or of course it could mean that the architects did do their job and that the allegations are not correct.

Anthony
Anthony
6 years ago

I just hope and pray that finally there will be closure in this. Three years is an agonizing wait for the families who lost love ones. I have friends and workmates who have suffered great loss. We pray also for healing, and that the families of those affected may begin to finally pick up the pieces when justice is finally served.
Above all, we pray for mercy and forgiveness, though justice may equitably be served, we need the element of mercy and forgiveness for healing to truly take place.
For those with liability in this, strength and courage for their respective families as well, that they may face the difficult days ahead, this will be also a burden on their part as well.

MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

I’m sad to say if praying actually worked in a religious country like Qatar this would have been resolved a long time ago

Saleem
Saleem
6 years ago
Reply to  MIMH

Let these people express their hopes the way they want to express them, learn that not every article is the right place to feed your teenager-esque desire to disprove others belief system.

Ali Elali
Ali Elali
6 years ago
Reply to  MIMH

Keep your religion believe ( if you have one ) to yourself and let others express it the way they feel , Your previous religion comments were deleted from other articles and still continue to do so , learn as Saleem said . Qatar is a beautiful Muslim country , its the system that needs to be amended. Praying works for anyone and however they like to do so .

MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago
Reply to  Ali Elali

So I have to keep my beliefs to myself where you are free to express them. Sounds like you are a hypocrite

ShabinaKhatri
ShabinaKhatri
6 years ago
Reply to  MIMH

Deleting for irrelevance.

MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago

Oh dear as if Qatar needed anymore bad publicity with the FIFA corruption scandal, death of migrant workers, kafala enslavement, prevention of Nepalese returning to their devastated country and now death of kids being spread around the world.

I guess the lawsuit is out of desperation at the slow pace of justice in Qatar and the continued freedom of those that were convicted of the deaths at villiago. I guess seeing Mr Al Thani living a nice life as ambassador in Belgium while the parents kids are in the ground is the final insult to their memory

zeit
zeit
6 years ago
Reply to  MIMH

Slow clap for upvoting your own comment.

ShabinaKhatri
ShabinaKhatri
6 years ago
Reply to  zeit

Deleting for bullying.

Rane de Beer
Rane de Beer
6 years ago

I was in the mall last week – still no maps anywhere to be seen, and good luck finding personnel that can tell you where you need to go to. Surely it is the practical thing to do – both for the ease of finding places and emergency exits. One of which is now closed due to the extension work. Frankly, I foresee similar chaos/injuries if a fire breaks out.

Saleem
Saleem
6 years ago
Reply to  Rane de Beer

I guess they will not learn until another major incident…sadly it does not surprise me too.

The Reporter
The Reporter
6 years ago
Reply to  Rane de Beer

Qatar fire regulations are, as is virtually all construction, based on British and US standards. Not only should there be escape plans on the walls at strategic points, but there should be a set of plans readily available that the property management can hand to the Civil Defence when they arrive on site.

Doodz
Doodz
6 years ago

How come Qatar can easily convict an expat while this taking too much…

A_qtr
A_qtr
6 years ago
Reply to  Doodz

The deeper the pocket the better the defense lawyers

disqus-eyrhws
disqus-eyrhws
6 years ago

My condolences to the families and everyone involved in this tragedy that has gone on too long without closure.

A high quality, Zero VOC (toxicity), LEED Certified, Water Based paint and interior finish alternative is Benjamin Moore Paints. Distributed here by the Sendian Group (https://www.facebook.com/sendianpaintsandcoats. Salwa Road), and brought to Qatar to supply to the new hospital projects. I’m not related to the company in any way I simply found them while researching to re-paint my apartment.
I am providing this as information to other architects/contractors/project managers looking for an available product to specify here in Doha, and potentially reducing the risk of these incidents happening in the future.

A_qtr
A_qtr
6 years ago
Reply to  disqus-eyrhws

Poor taste

Qunnaby
Qunnaby
6 years ago
Reply to  disqus-eyrhws

Why don’t you shove them up your piehole. This ain’t the time or place.

ShabinaKhatri
ShabinaKhatri
6 years ago
Reply to  disqus-eyrhws

Deleting for advertising.

SLICK
SLICK
6 years ago

I hope the families get some justice now, as the Qatari system ain’t showing them NO love.

Chipper fluffypants
Chipper fluffypants
6 years ago

Still trying to figure out if the second floor of Go Sports is where the nursery used to be…seems to be the right location.

JasonMH
JasonMH
6 years ago

No. It was opposite, next to where the Adidas store is.

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