For Every Wrong, the Law Provides a Remedy

Ubi jus ibi remedium – For every wrong, the law provides a remedy.  Not in Saudi Arabia.  

An article in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, September 29, 2017 covered a tragic fire where at least 10 people died, including a pregnant woman who leaped to her death from a window while trying to reach the swimming pool from her upper story apartment. 

The company, a Saudi Arabian energy company housed thousands of employees in a company owned apartment complex. The company safety division had recently warned that the lack of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and firewalls to prevent fires from spreading constituted a “grave safety risk.” The company ignored the warning and filled up the apartments with employees and their families.  The article goes on to say that the company was essentially immune from lawsuits or judicial oversight due to Saudi Arabian laws which allowed the monarchy to override any court decisions. The article infers that Aramco’s nonfeasance is likely due, in large part, to the lack of judicial scrutiny and the associated consequences.   

The foreseeable and entirely preventable deaths of ten innocent people who died in the Aramco fires is a tragic reminder that some companies, if un-policed and without consequences, will risk innocent lives to increase profits or production. It appears Aramco ignored warnings of “major life safety concerns” issued by its own safety division.  

Though it has flaws, America’s civil justice system not only allows compensation for victims but serves the equally important function of policing corporations.  Lawsuits, and the threat of lawsuits, keep corporations in check and by so doing, help prevent similar tragedies from occurring.   When the threat of a lawsuit is not enough and a company chooses to put lives at risk and someone is killed or injured, our civil justice system serves the dual purpose of punishing the guilty and compensating the innocent.  

Two years ago, Shiver Hamilton was involved in a case with strikingly similar facts.  Eric Hilario, an 18-year-old young man, was working at a recycling facility one evening.  As he was cleaning up the work site, a fire erupted. The fire engulfed his front end loader and Eric was consumed in flames and died.  

Through the civil justice system and discovery, we learned that numerous coworkers had complained about dangerous and hazardous conditions involving flammable fuel at the worksite.   These warnings were ignored by the company because changing the system would slow down the recycling process.  

Unfortunately, in Georgia, even grossly negligent companies receive little, if any, penalties from regulatory agencies like OSHA.  In this particular case, the company was only fined $12,000 despite the fact they violated numerous fire codes and ignored the warnings of several employees.  

At trial, one of the company’s main defenses was that this particular procedure was common in the recycling industry. Essentially arguing “everyone does it this way” the defense asked for a defense verdict. A Fulton County jury returned a verdict in favor of Eric’s parents for $29,250,000 and determined that the company’s egregious conduct warranted punitive damages to punish this company and deter other companies from engaging in similar conduct.  

It worked. News of the verdict was published in numerous scrap metal industry and recycling publications throughout the country. The company changed the way it conducts its operations and no longer uses the flawed and dangerous process

America’s civil justice system is not perfect.  Many citizens and lawyers take advantage of the system. But regardless of its flaws, it would allow the Saudi Arabian family members receive compensation and, perhaps equally important, would punish Aramco for its willful neglect.

The WSJ article can be found here:

https://blogs.wsj.com/moneybeat/2017/09/29/saudi-oil-giant-ignored-warnings-before-fire-energy-journal/