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GRENLEC exonerated from house fire

Attorney-at-law Dickon Mitchell - represented GRENLEC in the lawsuit

A high court judge in Grenada has exonerated Grenlec from any responsibility for a devastating fire, which resulted in the loss of lives of three children in St. Patrick some 14 years ago.

Female high court judge Justice Agnes Actie handed down the ruling on the claim that was filed by attorney-at-law Anselm Clouden on March 31, 2007.

Grenlec was represented in the matter by attorney-at-law, Dickon Mitchell.

The claim brought by Vondell Oliver (Ms. Oliver) as mother and Administratrix of Shimia Oliver, age 2, Shiriah Oliver, age 5 and Akida Oliver, age 12, arising out of a fire on 16th June 2006 resulting in the death of her three minor children.

The main issue of contention in the case was whether the Grenada Electricity Services Limited (Grenlec) was negligent and in breach of duty arising out of the deadly fire on 16th June 2006.

According to the judge, the claimants failed to establish that there was an electrical fault as a result of Grenlec’s negligence in order to ascribe liability as asserted in the pleadings.

Justice Actie indicated that it was “disheartening that this claim which was filed in March 2007 took fourteen (14) years to be determined by a court of law in Grenada.

“…The court must comment that such a devastating fire which led to the death of Ms. Oliver’s three minor children is rather unfortunate and further underscores why children, especially minors at such tender ages should not at any point be left unsupervised and locked in the home, even more so in the late hours of the night, as was in the present circumstances”.

As a public service, THE NEW TODAY reproduces in full the Justice Agnes Actie ruling on the case handed down on September 21:

JUDGEMENT
[1] ACTIE, J.: This claim brought by Vondell Oliver (Ms. Oliver) as mother and Administratrix of Shimia Olive, age 2, Shiriah Olive, age 5 and Akida Olive, age 12, raises the issue as to whether the Grenada Electricity Services Limited (Grenlec) was negligent and in breach of duty arising out of a fire on 16th June 2006 resulting in the death of her three minor children.

Ms. Oliver’s Case
[2] Ms. Oliver in a claim form filed on 21st March 2007 contends that on or about 16th June 2006, at approximately 10:45 pm, an electric fault occurred causing a fire which engulfed and burned her dwelling house situate in the Town of Sauteurs in the parish of Saint Patrick in the State of Grenada (the property) resulting in the death of her three minor children and the complete destruction of the property together with its contents.

[3] An independent Electrical Engineer carried out an investigation and determined that an electric fault was most likely the cause of the fire. In his findings, he concluded that the bonding wire as required by the electrical code was never installed and the circuit breakers which are designed to isolate the ground could not do so without this missing bonding wire.

[4] Ms. Oliver contends that the fire was caused by the negligence of Grenlec, its servants and/or agents by: (1) failing to ensure that there were or would be no risk of fire arising from the supply of electricity to the said building; and (2) failing to ensure that the bonding wire as required by the electrical code was installed. Ms. Oliver also relies on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

[5] Ms. Oliver claims special damages for funeral expenses, loss of dwelling house, loss of clothing, personal belonging, furniture and appliances and the costs of the engineer’s report, among other reliefs.

Grenlec’s case
[6] Grenlec denies that an electrical fault caused the fire or if there was an electrical fault that caused the fire that it was caused by it or its negligence.

[7] Grenlec further states that:

(1) On 16th June 2006 at about 11:04 pm its duty control operator, Kenny Pascal, received a report from one Yoland Jones regarding a fire on a building located in the town of Sauteurs, St. Patrick. Grenlec immediately dispatched a crew to the scene of the fire to disconnect the power lines providing electricity. On the crew’s arrival at the scene of the said fire, the police and fire officers were present, and the fire was being put out.

(2) Its service lead approximately 20 feet long, which supplied electricity to the building on fire, was still attached from its pole to the said building. The service lead was intact, not burnt and in good condition.

The service line was also intact and attached to the meter. The meter was completely intact and was left on the said building by its crew.

(3) With regard to the service lead, Grenlec, at the request of the police officers at the scene of the fire, disconnected the service lead from the said building and handed it over to them.

(4) The allegation that the fire was caused by an electrical fault is without any factual basis and the report of George Radix dated 11th December 2006 does not give any factual basis for his assertions that the cause of the fire was most likely an electrical fault.

(5) It is not responsible for installing the bonding wire referred to in the claim. Further, it is not responsible for the internal or external electrical wiring of buildings in Grenada. There is no requirement for the installation of bonding wire in the internal or external wiring of buildings in Grenada before it supplies electricity to it.

(6) It is the Government through the Ministry of Works and the Electrical Inspectors who are responsible for the inspection and certification of electrical wiring of buildings in Grenada before Grenlec is able to supply buildings with electricity. If the electrical wiring of a building does not meet the standards set by the Ministry of Works, the electrical inspection certificate would not be issued by the said Ministry. The building was certified as fit for the supply of electricity on 15th December 2005 and was duly signed and stamped by the Electrical Inspector and it was on that basis that Grenlec connected this building.

(7) For the foregoing reasons, it denies the allegations of negligence in the claim and the reliance on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

Additionally, Grenlec denies the allegation that Ms. Oliver has suffered loss and damage as a result of its negligence and states that Ms. Oliver is not entitled to any relief claimed.

Claimant’s Evidence
[8] In a witness statement filed on 11th October 2007, the claimant, Vondell Oliver, says that:

(1) On 16th June 2006 at around 8:30 pm she was invited to an outing with a friend and arranged with her brother Rudell to look after the children. Ms. Oliver left the home at approximately 9:00pm. At 9:15 pm she called Rudell and he informed her that he went over to the house and the children were asleep, so he went back to his home with the intention of returning to her home later.

(2) At about 10:45 pm, Ms. Oliver received a call on her way back to Sauteurs stating that her house was on fire. She states that she rushed home only to find her home destroyed by fire and her three children dead.

(3) The building was connected with electricity in February 2006, just a few months prior to the fire.

Evidence of Sandra Jeremiah
[9] Ms. Jeremiah states that she resides in Sauteurs in the parish of Saint Patrick. On 16th June 2006 at approximately 10:45 pm while she was in the town of Sauteurs on Cornwall Street with Mr. Cleggon Monroe, she noticed an electricity pole about 30 to 40 yards away sparking. A few seconds later she saw Ms Oliver’s house catch fire. The fire started on the top of the house. Ms. Jeremiah avers that she started yelling “fire, fire”, then she and Mr. Munroe ran towards the house.

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[10] A neighbour, Ms. Patrina, came out of the house and Ms. Jeremiah asked her whether anyone was in the house. Ms. Patrina informed her that the children were in the house. The Sauteurs police were alerted about the fire and they came immediately to assist. A few people tried to get into the house, but at the same time the police was trying to out the fire and nobody was able to get into the house.

Evidence of Delmar Oliver
[11] Delmar Oliver in her witness statement states that she was informed by her son, Rudell that Ms. Oliver’s house was on fire. On arrival at the house she observed the fire brigade trying to out the fire and she saw the house was burning from the top downwards. One of her son’s Shondel, managed to break down the door but was unable to get inside because of the fire and the smoke. After the fire was extinguished, police officers and a doctor went inside the house and found the three deceased children lying on their beds.

Evidence of George Radix
[12] The witness statements of Mr. George Radix filed on 11th October 2007 and 18th January 2012, respectively highlight the following salient points:

(1) He is a consulting electrical engineer and the Managing Director of Plastix Engineering. His profession experience includes electrical installation in Trinidad and Tobago and Texas and commercial electrical installations and utility transmissions and distribution in Grenada.

(2) In his report, he relies on two documents to guide his findings namely Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) Wiring Regulations BS7671 and National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) 921 Guide for Fire and Explosive Investigation.

(3) He conducted a site inspection on 11th December 2011. He avers that it is evident from the burnt pattern that the fire started in the front left room as viewed from the road. The degree of combustion was observed to be more complete towards the roofline of the room and less so at lower elevations. He concludes that this is an indication that the source of the fire was close to the roofline as flames travel mostly upward.

(4) He is of the view that arson and the kitchen being the source of the fire can be ruled out and the likely source is electrical. There was no evidence of short-circuit faults anywhere in the installation. Any internal short-circuit faults, however, would have been cleared by the internal protective circuit breakers. No such protection is provided by Grenlec for their serve line or meter. He states that he could not find definitive evidence of faults on the Grenlec system.

(5) By process of elimination, a high resistance electrical ground fault is then the most likely source of this fire. The high resistance electrical ground fault elevated at or close to the roof in the left front room as viewed from the road.

(6) These faults however seldom leave visual evidence and none were found. The TT system of grounding employed was not fully complied with, as the requisite loop impedance is invariably higher than that specified by the electrical code. This noncompliance essentially would defeat the sensitivity of the protective circuit breakers to such faults and in his view is the likely root cause of the fire. He states that both Grenlec and the Electrical Inspectorate are aware of this violation of the IEE code.

Defendant’s Evidence

Evidence of Theophilus Francis
[13] Mr. Theophilus Francis in his witness statement filed on 12th January 2012, avers that his company was retained by Caribbean Alliance Insurance Company Limited to conduct an investigation into the fire. The company prepared a report on 15th May 2007 and a follow up report on 2nd December 2011. The salient points of the reports are:

(1) On examination on the remains of the house, it was observed “that the fire was concentrated at the front left bedroom which is the north-western corner of the house and from there smoke and heat spread to other parts of the house”.

(2) When they visited the site of the fire on 23rd February 2007, they noted that the area which the ground wires from the building ran and saw a steel rod that had been driven into the ground. No other rod was driven into the ground in this area.

Therefore, they are of the view that the steel rod was being used as an earth rod although it did not meet the statutory requirement of using copper and would not have been effective for its purpose.

1 Para. 1, page 5 of the 15th May 2007 report.

(3) Given the near total destruction at the left front bedroom, there is no doubt that the fire started there and earlier the flames or heat migrated to the other parts of the house.

(4) With respect to the area of the electricity supply to the house, they noted that the meter that is affixed to the front external timber cladding of the room was absolutely intact and there was significant survival of the timber panels to which it was attached.

(5) Ms. Oliver’s feed line was attached directly to Grenlec’s service lead and it is remarkable that her supply line showed fire impingement from the outside with little or no deterioration of the wires on the inside. When the line is properly laid out the section which has seen fire impingement is the section that would have been resting against the house. Therefore, the fire impingement was from the burning house and not that fire from this source burnt the house.

(6) While there is destruction near the area of the roof skirting board at the left of the front porch, there is also significant survival from the outside making it appear that the fire attacked the roof skirting board from the inside of the house. This led them to conclude that the inside of the house was burning before any part of the outer roof.

(7) It can be concluded that the area of origin of the fire is the front bedroom and the pattern of burning reveals more damage in the areas that are further from the meter and the supply line. In light of the above, they conclude that the fire had nothing to do with quality or manner of Grenlec’s supply.

(8) In relation to issue of the use of bonding wire in the electrical installation, Mr. Francis says he is not certain whether Mr. Radix’s statement that bonding wire as required by the electrical code was never installed, is a comment advocating for the use of bonding wires or an observation on the separation of the grounding wire from the ground rod. If it is the latter, Mr. Francis avers that this would be confirmation that the state they observed at their later visit, existed for some time before. However, if it is a comment regarding his preference for the TNCS system against the TT system used by Grenlec, Mr. Radix’s comment would be misleading, since there was grounding by the TT system, which is a method recognised by the IEE. The efficacies of the two systems are debatable.

TO BE CONTINUED