Development in the construction industry should never cost lives, a judge warned when handing down a two-year jail term to a contractor involved in the collapse of a building 18 years ago.
The contractor, Paul Demicoli, had originally been condemned to a three-year jail term but had the sentence reduced on appeal. He was also spared payment of expenses related to experts appointed in the magisterial inquiry
The case dates to June 3 of 2004 when a block of apartments on Triq Ramon Perellos, St Paul’s Bay, collapsed at around 3.30pm as a result of construction works next door.
Hours later, as rescue workers searched through the rubble, they discovered the lifeless bodies of Maria Dolores Zarb and Nadezda Vavilova, who were buried alive when the block of apartments collapsed.
The incident led to criminal action against Paul Demicoli, the contractor, Kevin Bonnici, the worker who had been carrying out excavation works on site earlier that day as well as the owner of the plot, Paul Magro for having caused the victims’ death through negligence and inadequate risk assessment.
In 2009, Demicoli and Bonnici were found guilty and were condemned to a three-year and an 18-month jail term respectively. Magro was acquitted. Bonnici filed an appeal and had his jail term reduced to six months.
Demicoli filed a separate appeal.
When delivering judgment the Court of Criminal Appeal, presided over by Mr Justice Aaron Bugeja, observed that the case had been ongoing for 12 years because, in the meantime, Demicoli had filed civil proceedings and requested the criminal proceedings to be adjourned ‘sine die.’
Once those civil proceedings were definitively concluded in 2018, the appeal could resume.
The court observed that Demicoli was no newcomer to this field of work since he had worked in construction since 1988.
Although he claimed to have taken over as contractor at the St Paul’s Bay project only following the collapse, various eyewitnesses, including neighbours, confirmed that he was the person they regularly observed on site.
Demicoli was the person who issued instructions, and the project architect also confirmed him as his client.
The crux of the matter lay in determining who had given instructions for excavation works to be done on a concrete base underlying the adjacent property.
'Appellant tried to shift blame'
Demicoli claimed that just a couple of days before the fatal episode, he had visited the site together with the workers and architect who had allegedly discussed the works with the stonemasons.
The contractor claimed that he had only been present for some ten minutes that day.
However, the architect subsequently testified that after assessing the ongoing excavation works, he had issued specific instructions to Demicoli and the stonemasons not to touch the party wall but only to proceed with the construction of a pillar at the centre of the plot.
After assessing the evidence, the court observed that it was Demicoli “and no one else” who had taken the decision to trim the underlying structure (suletta), even though well aware that its safety was dubious.
He had issued the order to the worker operating the digger and that attitude was “manifestly negligent”, since he gave the go-ahead without thinking about the consequences which were easily foreseeable.
Although the appellant tried to shift the blame onto the architect and other workers, the evidence firmly showed that he was the one who issued instructions for the works which brought about the tragic loss of two innocent lives. The victims were killed inside their home which is the place where a person has a “sacrosanct right” to feel safest, remarked the judge.
And moreover, the appellant could have foreseen the damage. When all was considered, the court confirmed the conviction on all charges except for that concerning failure to safeguard the health of all those who could have been affected by the works.
When considering punishment, the court took note of the “noble attitude” of one of the victim's daughter who said that she had forgiven the accused and had no wish for them to serve time in jail.
She suggested a community service order, saying that that would give back something to society.
However, the court explained that such a punishment could not be applied in this case.
Moreover, the suggestion had not been met with the same approach by other victims affected by the tragic event.
The court had to strike a balance between the interests of the injured parties and those of society in general.
Although nothing could be done to retrieve lost lives, not all could be forgiven and forgotten, observed the court.
However, the daughter’s request was to be considered along with other mitigating factors such as the lapse of time, the fact that through all these years the appellant had no other brush with the law as well as payment of damages.
In light of such considerations, the court reduced Demicoli’s punishment to a two-year term, wrapping up judgment with a word of advice.
Although development in the construction industry was an important driving force for the economy, guarding financial interests in the sector could not be done at the cost of the health and safety of all those involved, the judge remarked.
Lives were “always more important than any prospect of economic development or financial gain”, said the court.