US attorneys launch landmark lawsuit against American firms over Grenfell

American attorneys famous for claims in construction disasters have launched a landmark wrongful death lawsuit in Philadelphia against three US companies on behalf of 69 of the 72 people killed in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, and 177 who were injured in the tragedy.

They are targeting Arconic, Inc., which they claim supplied the Reynobond Polyethylene Cladding (PE) panels on Grenfell; Celotex Corporation, which they claim supplied the insulation used in the cladding system; and Whirlpool Corporation, which manufactured the fridge-freezer thought to be linked to the start of the fire.

The 143-count wrongful death and products liability complaint filed at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, announced last week, demands a jury trial and seeks compensation and punitive damages on behalf of 247 Grenfell plaintiffs in all. The amount sought has not been determined.

Corporations must be held to account for each and every person who died or was injured; from our son, the youngest person to lose his life, to the grandparents who died protecting the ones they loved– Marcio Gomes, Grenfell survivor

In the court papers, trial attorneys from two firms – Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky (SMBB), and DiCello Levitt Gutzler – said Arconic’s Reynobond PE panels, which are cheaper than the fire-resistant alternative, could not be sold for high-rise buildings in the US, so the company "determined to exploit the European market and export the danger abroad that they couldn’t sell at home".

Arconic’s "corporate greed and desire to cut corners" sent the message that "foreign lives are worth less than American lives", the attorneys said.

For its part, Celotex knew its insulation was highly combustible and not fit for use in cladding, but "sold and supplied it to the Tower anyway", the attorneys alleged.

The result was that Grenfell Tower became a "flaming coffin" that sentenced residents to a slow and agonising death.

"We are honoured and humbled to represent our clients in their quest for justice," said SMBB founder Robert Mongeluzzi in announcing the action.

Nicknamed "the king of construction accidents",  Mongeluzzi has been lead counsel in many high-profile construction disaster claims in the US, including the Pier 34 collapse, in 2000, at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, and the 2003 Tropicana Casino collapse in Atlantic City.

In 2016 he and partner Jeffrey Goodman achieved a settlement worth $265m over the 2015 Amtrak Train No. 188 derailment, in which eight people died and more than 200 were injured.

Of the Grenfell case, Mongeluzzi said: "While the flames erupted in a flat in London, this fire originated and spread because of decisions made in the United States by United States corporates that prioritised profits over safety. We seek to hold these American companies accountable on their home turf to send a message that conduct like this will not be tolerated anywhere in the world."

Referring to Arconic’s decision to discontinue the Reynobond PE panel 12 days after the Grenfell fire, Mark A. DiCello, of DiCello Levitt Gutzler, said: "As we allege in our Complaint, this type of cladding is banned from use on residential structures higher than 40 feet in the United States, because it is highly flammable. The Grenfell Tower was more than 200 feet tall. Tragically, Arconic waited to make the decision to stop selling this dangerous product until after this horrific tragedy. They designed and marketed a lethal product and reaped the profits while the victims paid the price."

SMBB’s Jeffrey Goodman added: "The families of Grenfell rightly look to the American courts to hold US corporations accountable and to help prevent tragedies like this in the future."

SMBB’s portrait of attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, lead counsel on many high-profile construction disaster claims in the US (SMBB)

Among the plaintiffs is Nicholas Burton, whose wife Maria del Pilar Burton, 72, died in January 2018 as a result of injuries sustained in the fire.

For the announcement of the lawsuit he stated: "These American companies knew of the dangers with their products, yet elected to supply them anyway and expose us and our loved ones to this fire. This lawsuit is about holding them accountable and the most effective way to do that is by suing them where they are based – in the United States. This is a wakeup call for all major corporations who behave as if they are above the law and refuse to face up to the damage they cause or change their ways, even after horrific disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire."

Another plaintiff is Marcio Gomes, who escaped the burning tower with his pregnant wife and their two daughters. Hours later their son Logan was delivered stillborn, becoming the youngest of the 72 Grenfell fatalities.

Gomes stated: "I lived very happily with my wife and two young daughters on the 21st floor of the 23-floor Tower. The fire took everything from us. My wife was seven months pregnant when the smoke and cyanide killed our son before he was born into this world. Nothing can repair our deepest feelings of hurt and heartbreak.

"It was all completely avoidable. It should never have happened. It should never happen again to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Corporations must be held to account for each and every person who died or was injured; from our son, the youngest person to lose his life, to the grandparents who died protecting the ones they loved. We will never forget. We will not let them down. We will see justice for all at Grenfell."

The issue of jurisdiction is likely to be a crucial factor in the case. Legal experts told The New York Times that product liability cases usually hinge on how closely linked the manufacturing process was to decisions made, or facilities used, in the US.

"Did they make it here? Did they come here to do sales calls?" were the questions a judge would consider, Tom Baker, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said to The Times.

In a statement published after the lawsuit was announced on 11 June, Celotex said: "Celotex is a UK business and the Celotex insulation used at Grenfell Tower was manufactured and sold in the United Kingdom." 

It reaffirmed its "deepest sympathies to everyone affected by the fire", and said it was continuing to cooperate fully with the ongoing public inquiry in the UK.

In their court submissions, the attorneys argued at length that the actions relevant to the case were carried out under the supervision of the US defendants, and that the "blending of corporate personnel and responsibilities, as well as, financial and other resources enables the ‘piercing of the corporate veil'" to hold them liable.

In a statement to GCR, Arconic said it would "respond to this litigation in court".

"We express our deepest sympathy to all those affected by the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire and remain committed to supporting the Public Inquiry and investigations by the authorities in the UK," it said. "We will respond to this litigation in court."

Also expressing sympathies to those affected by the tragedy, a Whirlpool Corporation spokesperson pointed out that investigations by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and another by Whirlpool itself, found no evidence of any fault with the fridge-freezer model.

Whirlpool said: "We extend our deepest sympathies to everyone affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy and we honour the extraordinary courage and dignity of the survivors and those who have lost loved-ones.

"Everyone touched by this event deserves answers, and it is entirely appropriate that the public inquiry is entrusted with finding those answers. We are committed to assisting the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in any way we can as it continues to investigate all the potential origins and causes of the fire and how it spread. While the inquiry is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.

"Separately, we would like to reassure owners of these products that they are safe and they can continue to use them as normal.

"Nothing matters more to us than people’s safety. That’s why as soon as we were made aware of this incident, we launched an investigation into the model of fridge freezer that was in the flat where the fire began.

"Two separate investigations have been carried out – one by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and another by Whirlpool. Both investigations independently found no evidence of any fault with this model and confirmed that it fully complied with all safety requirements. These conclusions have also been verified by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser."

Top image: Grenfell Tower still burning at 4.43am on 14 June 2017, London (Natalie Oxford/CC By 4.0)

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