An Irish family whose child suffered severe burns in their Qatar villa three years ago has decided to take their former landlord to court.
The Soffes had been negotiating for financial compensation for their child since her accident, but said they were getting nowhere.
Their case has so far served as a bit of a cautionary tale for expats about the difficulties of managing tragedies in a country that is not their own.
In 2014, six-month-old Elizabeth Soffe was napping in her cot when the AC unit above her bed erupted into flames.
The fire left Elizabeth, now three years old, with lifelong injuries, including the loss of most of her fingers, her left ear, much of her hair and a large part of her nose.
No one was found liable for the blaze, which spurred a home safety campaign across Qatar shortly after it happened.
But the Soffes said that Al Asmakh Real Estate, which operates the Beverly Hills 7 compound where they had lived, had pledged financial assistance.
After “exhaustive” attempts to collect this money, Elizabeth’s parents said they are now taking their fight for compensation to a Qatari civil court.
Father Liam Soffe told Doha News the decision was made with a heavy heart.
“We know from other cases that it takes years to go through the court. I think if Al Asmakh had properly engaged with us it could be resolved. All we want is to move on with our lives. This is a huge drain that we want to be over with,” he said.
For its part, Al Asmakh said they are still keen to come to an “amicable settlement” with the family.
But representatives from the company told Doha News that the amount requested by the Soffes – some €10m (QR40 million) – was too high.
According to Liam Soffe, the estimate is based on Elizabeth’s past and future needs for medical care, as well as equipment and assistance.
The court case
The Soffes filed their civil claim against Al Asmakh in January. They had the help of Al Ansari & Associates, a local firm that has taken on the case free of charge.
Since then, there have been three hearings in civil court. During these sessions, both sides exchanged case files, and Al Asmakh asked for more time to formulate its defense.
Al Asmakh’s insurance company, Oman Insurance Co., also attended one of the hearings.
According to Liam Soffe, the insurance company said in court that it could not process the family’s claim because they had not provided an original copy of their lease for their villa, and a valid insurance certificate.
Soffe said the family did not have these documents, as the original lease had been destroyed in the fire, and the insurance certificate was held by Al Asmakh.
A lack of documents is not the only issue in this case.
Asmakh rep Hamzeh Fuad told Doha News that the company has written evidence proving that it warned the Soffe family not to use their air-conditioning units before the fire.
He said that the company had carried out maintenance on all the units in the villa and decided they needed to return later for further work.
Because of this warning, Fuad suggested this meant that the company was not to blame for the fire that followed.
However, Liam Soffe flatly denied this, saying:
“I can assure you that never happened and any suggestion it did is simply not true. Of more concern is that this indicates that Al Asmakh knew that the AC units were unsafe and did not repair them. We would be very keen to see this ‘evidence.’”
Soffe also expressed concerns about the investigation into the cause of the fire.
Police officially ruled it an “act of God,” and closed the case shortly after the family flew out of Qatar to get Elizabeth medical treatment.
“I believe if a similar thing was to happen in the UK, you would determine whether it had been maintained, installed correctly, whether the people who had done it were qualified – none of that seems to have been done at all,” he said.
Elizabeth Soffe now lives with her parents and siblings in Birmingham in the UK, close to the hospital where she continues to receive care from experienced plastic surgeons.
The family have decided not to share new photos of the child due to the nature of her injuries.
Elizabeth recently had a series of operations on her right hand, to lengthen her fingers and give her a proper thumb. This allows her to do more for herself.
“She won’t be able to use a knife and fork, but she can use a spoon and is able to do most things a normal 3-year-old can,” Liam Soffe said. “She spent last night giving thumbs up signs to the other children.”
He added that in many ways, the Soffes are a “normal family” and Elizabeth is a “normal” child.
But he did admit that the legal wrangling and her medical needs have put a strain on family life.
“She has scar treatment and physiotherapy five times a day, and you can imagine that takes a lot of time to do that. It takes time away from the other siblings,” he said. “And the legal fight is certainly a huge emotional strain.”
He added that the family now wants to “finish this part of their lives” and move on from the fire.
Searching for answers
He also emphasized that aside from providing for Elizabeth’s financial needs, the family is focused on getting answers about the incident.
“When Elizabeth grows up, I just want to be able to tell her why. Maybe that it wasn’t installed properly, or the wires were installed wrongly. I want to give her an answer.”
Meanwhile, Fuad said that Al Asmakh was also keen to come to a fair settlement with the family soon.
“Let’s put ourselves in her father’s shoes,” he said. “We totally understand that he should fight for her. If I were in his shoes, I’d be the same.
Let him propose reasonable compensation, so we can reach an amicable settlement and I will assist him as soon as possible. We will not delay.”
He also added that Al Asmakh had taken the fire at the Soffe’s villa very seriously and had immediately embarked on a program to check all of the AC units in all of its properties, followed up by regular maintenance.
He stated that he was certain that there had been no fires in Al Asmakh properties since he joined the company 1.5 years ago.
The next court hearing is scheduled for June 12.