x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Case of poisoned Pakistani building worker shows problems of allocating blame in on-site accidents

As cases of work-related deaths make their way up and down the courts, legal ambiguities can often make it difficult to assign blame

ABU DHABI // A court verdict that blamed two companies for the death of a labourer was rescined this week by the Federal Supreme Court, one of several recent cases that underscore ambiguities in determining who is legally responsible for a worker's safety.

The labourer, a Pakistani identified as NAA, died after being poisoned by hazardous waste kept on a site in Sharjah, prosecutors said, accusing his employers of contributing to his death. "His death was caused by its negligence and non-compliance with the existing [safety] codes that dictate the disposal of waste on work sites," the prosecutors said, according to a court document released yesterday.

According to the document, the Pakistani worked for a construction company, but he died when the site was being run by a plumbing subcontractor. The construction company disputed it was responsible for his death, saying its contract with the sub-contractor stated the latter was liable. The Sharjah Court of First Instance acquitted both companies. Prosecutors appealed, and the Sharjah Federal Appeal Court fined both companies Dh2,000, and ordered that they pay blood money to the labourer's family.

The companies then re-appealed, and the case was referred to the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. Although the death was unintentional, the court ruled a company could be considered liable if the cause of harm resulted from its failure to comply with safety and security rules and regulations. Justice Falah al Hajri of the Federal Supreme Court then ruled that verdict was invalid because it was "erroneous". The court found the contract between the two companies clearly stated that the sub-contractor was responsible for ensuring safety measures on the site by a foreman.

The case was referred to an appeals court for new hearings. In March, the Federal Supreme Court heard a similar case in which it ordered two companies, including a subcontractor, to pay Dh5,000 each, in addition to blood money, for the family of a labourer in Sharjah. The labourer, also Pakistani, identified as QA, fell two storeys to his death. The court ruled both companies were liable because he did not wear a helmet while at work, but it overturned a three-month jail sentence for the employers issued by the Sharjah Court of Appeals.

In another case also in March, a lower court ordered a company pay a Dh2,000 fine and blood money after a labourer in Sharjah, identified as HA, who did not wear a helmet or safety belt fell to his death at a work site. That verdict was overturned, however, because the court said the panel that issued it was not the same one that announced it which, by law, annuls the ruling. Such confusion in courts over liability in workplace accidents has made safety compliance more complicated, according to representatives from Civil Defence and the Emirates Standardisation and Metrology Authority. The agencies met last month to discuss the safety issues at construction sites and how to ensure companies were compliant with regulations. They said the human and financial losses due to safety hazards was "no secret to anyone".

Capt Salem al Habashi, an engineer at the Civil Defence Department, said safety standards and measures were often applied to sites only after construction was completed and "different authorities that issue licences enforce them". "But no authority enforces such measures during the construction," he said. He called on authorities to specify who was in charge of ensuring companies were compliant during construction.