Compensation for 2015 El Pecos blast reduced

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

FILE PHOTO: Then health minister Dr Fuad Khan speaks to a fire officer in front of an El Pecos restuarant at Royal Palm Hotel, Maraval, soon after an explosion at the restaurant on February 5, 2015.

THE COURT of Appeal has significantly reduced the nominal damages a High Court judge ordered to be paid to the owner of the property which housed the El Pecos restaurant in Maraval.

In September 2020, Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams found the North Plant LPG Co-operative Society Ltd, the supplier of liquid gas to the restaurant, negligent and liable for damage to the property which housed the restaurant.

She found North Plant LPG to have caused the deadly explosion at the restaurant on February 5, 2015, and ordered the company to compensate Continental Corporation Ltd, the owner of the property, which also houses the Royal Palm Hotel. In her ruling, the judge said nominal damages of $600,000 should be awarded.

The property’s owner had sought $2.1 million, but the judge held that the company did not provide evidence in support of its claim for special damages.

On February 2, Justices of Appeal Peter Rajkumar, Maria Wilson and Ronnie Boodoosingh reduced the nominal-damages award to $50,000.

“A figure of $600,000 for nominal damages cannot be justified on principle, authority or precedent in this jurisdiction,” said Boodoosingh, who delivered the decision.

“In this jurisdiction, the figure of $600,000 is significantly outside of the range of what has, thus far, been contemplated by nominal damages.

“There has been no justification for going so far out of the range and the judge erred in doing so.”

North Plant had argued that nominal damages could not be awarded, since the judge found there was no proof of damage to Continental.

However, she found that based on the evidence and the finding of fact on the issue of negligence on the part of North Plant LPG, there should be an award of nominal damages.

In the ruling, Boodoosingh said he was unable to agree with North Plant’s assertion there was “anything unreasonable” about Quinlan-Williams’s findings of fact.

“They were findings she was entitled to make, considering the totality of the evidence.

“The judge clearly found that damage had occurred to Continental’s property, but that Continental had not proved what she regarded as its special damages claim.

“It follows from this that the judge found that all the elements of negligence were established, including that damage resulted from the acts or omissions…

“I can discern no such material error and the findings made by the judge were permissible based on the evidence as a whole. North Plant may have a robustly different view of the evidence and how it should have been construed, but it cannot be said that the judge’s findings were not permissible on the evidence or there was a mistake in her evaluation of it or was unreasonable.

“In effect, what North Plant is asking the appeal court to do is to substitute a different view to that of the judge. It is exactly what the cases warn against once the judge had a reasonable basis for her findings.

“She was entitled, therefore, to consider whether an award of nominal damages should be made,” Boodoosingh held.

Although reducing the nominal damages, the Court of Appeal otherwise dismissed North Plant’s appeal.

It also ordered the gas supplier to pay Continental’s costs based on the reduced sum, as well as two-thirds of its costs at the appeal.

The explosion at El Pecos took place around 10.35 am on February 5, 2015, exactly a year after a fire at the restaurant’s branch at Ariapita Avenue, Woodbrook.

In total, a dozen customers and employees were seriously injured.

Four months later, John Soo Ping Chow died of his injuries at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida.

A report from the Fire Service suggested there was a gas leak in the delivery line of the North Plant truck.

However, the report deemed the explosion accidental, as it said “the most probable cause of the fire was as a result of ignition to a mixture of LPG and air, within the rear passageway near the El Pecos LPG cylinders.”

After Quinlan-Williams’s ruling, Justice Ricky Rahim upheld a compensation case brought by North Plant LPG employee Gregory Maicoo, who was seriously injured in the blast, and awarded him $160,000 in compensation.

There are also compensation claims from people injured in the explosion. Claims from the insurance companies of neighbouring restaurants affected by the blast which are suing to recoup the payouts they made to their clients are currently ongoing before Justice Nadia Kangaloo.

North Plant was represented by Avory Sinanan, SC, Kelvin Ramkissoon and Nizam Saladeen. Edwin Roopnarine and Shanta Balgobin represented Continental.