A Birmingham family have revealed the distress they have endured in a six-year legal battle in Qatar to gain compensation for the severe injuries experienced by their youngest daughter when they lived in the Gulf state.
Elizabeth Soffe, now aged eight, received life-threatening burns as a baby in a fire at her family’s villa in Al Waab, near the country’s capital, Doha, in 2014.
Her parents, Liam and Sinead Soffe, have been pursuing legal action in the Qatari courts since 2017 against the company that owned and managed the property.
The couple, who are Irish citizens but now live in Birmingham, near the hospital that has treated Elizabeth, are seeking compensation to cover the cost of their daughter’s treatment to date and her future care needs.
Elizabeth was left with third-degree burns to more than 60 per cent of her body and lost most of her fingers and her hair, part of her nose and an ear, and will need many more operations throughout her life. She also needs regular physiotherapy to ease the movement of her neck, elbows, wrists and other joints, which is restricted due to scarring.
A Qatari court-appointed fire expert determined that the fire was caused by inadequate maintenance of an air conditioning unit in the property by Al Asmakh Real Estate Development, or by the unit being connected to a poor electrical supply.
Her parents initially tried to reach an informal settlement with the company. But despite the assistance of the Irish government, no settlement was forthcoming after more than two years, so the family initiated legal proceedings against the firm in Qatar in January 2017.
The family hoped their fight was over last year when Qatar’s court of the first instance ruled that Al Asmakh Real Estate Development and its insurers Sukoon Insurance should pay nearly 15 million Qatari riyals (€3.7 million) in compensation. The amount covered Elizabeth’s existing treatment and future treatment, as well as the family’s possessions lost in the fire.
But the Qatari property firm successfully appealed against the ruling and got the case transferred to a lower court, the rental disputes settlement committee, which in October ruled that the firm should pay almost £1.6 million. This amount does not cover any future treatment needed by Elizabeth.
“They rejected [costs for] all future treatment – operations and prosthetics – because nothing was scheduled,” said Liam Soffe, a civil engineer who was a project manager on infrastructure for the World Cup. “She has had 70-80 operations on the NHS, and she will probably need at least another two operations every year until she’s an adult. She’ll need prosthetics for the front of her nose and one of her ears, and her medical team are talking about taking one of her toes to make a thumb for one of her hands.
“We’ve spent about £25,000 on court fees so far. UK solicitors we’ve asked all agree that if the case was heard here, the compensation would be between £8 million and £10 million. [In Qatar] there’s almost no consideration of what we would consider pain and suffering – for mental health and trauma. All we want is for Elizabeth to be taken care of, so that she has a life and opportunities.”
Both the Soffes and the property firm have appealed against the latest ruling, with further hearings scheduled for February.
Liam Soffe said the whole family, including Elizabeth’s three older siblings, had been affected by the ordeal. “It’s been constant mental anguish from having no closure. Every day you have to worry about the court case, but also about Elizabeth’s future and whether you’ll be able to look after her. We’ve got to look her in the eye when she gets older and make sure she understands we did everything we could.”
Despite the situation, Soffe said Elizabeth had endeavoured to lead a full life and she enjoys swimming, gymnastics, dancing and trampolining. Last year, to raise money so that Birmingham children’s hospital could buy a laser machine that breaks up scar tissue, she ran a mile a day for 26 days, raising £202,000. In October, she received a Pride of Britain award in recognition of her courage.
Her father said: “Elizabeth has a survivor mentality. That’s what’s going to get her through life. But she’s going to need an awful lot of help.”
Simon O’Loughlin, an associate solicitor at Irwin Mitchell, which has advised the Soffe family, said: “Liam and Sinead have gone through every parent’s worst nightmare. They continue to fight to ensure Elizabeth secures the compensation to give her access to the rehabilitation and treatment she will need for the rest of her life.”
Al Asmakh Real Estate and Sukoon Insurance have been approached for comment.
A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said: “The family’s concerns have been raised with the Qatari authorities, including recently.” – Guardian