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Elizabeth Soffe’s bedroom after the fire in 2014

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.

Soffe family

Elizabeth Soffe

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.

Liam Soffe

The Soffe family’s villa in Beverly Hills 7

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.

Soffe family

Elizabeth Soffe’s crib

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.

Liability questions

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.

Pete/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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.

EUPOL Afghanistan/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

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. 

Ongoing care

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.

Elliott Brown / Flickr

Birmingham Children’s Hospital

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.

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Elizabeth Soffe with her mother and sister in 2014, before the fire

“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.

Thoughts?

Elizabeth Soffe's bedroom after the fire in 2014

Elizabeth Soffe’s bedroom after the fire in 2014

The family of a baby who suffered major injuries in a fire in 2014 is still fighting for compensation from their former Qatar landlord.

Irish expat Elizabeth Soffe was six months old when the AC unit above her crib erupted in flames while she napped, leaving her with severe burns.

A police report stated that the fire, which took place at a villa in the Beverly Hills 7 compound, had been caused by faulty wiring, Elizabeth Soffe’s father Liam told Doha News.

No one has been found liable for the fire, but the family said they have been waiting to receive pledged financial support from the villa’s owners, Al Asmakh Real Estate.

Elizabeth Soffe

Via Soffe family

Elizabeth Soffe, pictured before the fire in 2014. The family have decided not to share new photographs of her for privacy reasons.

Al Asmakh told Doha News recently that the Soffes, who are no longer in Qatar, must speak to the company’s insurance provider directly to receive the compensation.

The company added however that they are still prepared to assist the family “in any reasonable way.”

Home safety

The Soffes’ experience is a cautionary tale not only about home safety in Qatar, but also about the difficulties of seeking recourse in the event of a tragedy.

Home fires are common here due to faulty electrical wiring and poorly maintained air-conditioning units.

After the fire in May 2014, Elizabeth’s mother Sinead Soffe appealed to her fellow Qatar residents to do more to keep their families safe at home:

“We would hope that each and every one of you insist your landlords check your electrics and install more smoke alarms. We had one in every bedroom, but it happened too fast – but it could save a life,” she said.

And last year, a woman whose A/C caused serious damage to her home after catching fire, called on residents to get their units serviced regularly.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

komonews

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Other home fire prevention tips shared previously by the Ministry of Interior include:

  • Not running A/C units continuously, as the build-up of dust poses a serious hazard;
  • Not overloading electrical sockets and unplugging non-essential electrical equipment overnight;
  • Turning off kitchen extractor fans when you don’t need them; and
  • Making sure all gas cylinders are closed off tightly, and stored away from direct sunlight.

It’s also good practice to test the batteries in your smoke alarms regularly, and to clean the filters in your A/C units on a frequent basis.

A different life

Now aged two and a half, Elizabeth Soffe lives with her parents and siblings in Birmingham in the UK.

The family relocated there so that she could be near the city’s specialist burns unit for children, where she undergoes regular operations and physical therapy.

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Soffe family handout

Elizabeth Soffe, pictured before the fire in 2014.

Her father Liam Soffe told Doha News that personality-wise, Elizabeth is a “normal, happy, determined toddler” who likes playing on the swings and slides, and annoys her siblings by pulling their hair.

Her injuries, however, mean that she looks very different than other children.

“The hardest thing is the reactions from people. She will never be able to walk into a room and have nobody stare at her,” he said.

Elizabeth has lost all of the fingers on her right hand, and only has the use of her thumb and half of her middle finger on her left hand.

She also lost her left ear after the fire, all of her hair except for one small remaining patch, and a large part of her nose.

“She’s severely scarred over 60 percent of her body, and even the bits that weren’t burned, they used for skin grafts,” her father said.

Recovery

These skin grafts are itchy and often keep her awake at night, and she also has to wear splints on her arms to stretch them out while she sleeps, he added.

The family said they have had to have a special car seat made for her, and are currently trying to find someone who can build her an adapted bike so she can cycle with her siblings.

Elizabeth Soffe with her mother and sister in 2014, before the fire

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Elizabeth Soffe with her mother and sister in 2014, before the fire.

Liam Soffe told Doha News that these pieces of equipment were only the beginning of a long list of expensive items and services Elizabeth is likely to need during her life:

“When she’s at school, she may need help holding a pencil, and when she’s older she may need an adapted car. She also needs specialist physical and occupational therapy.

And then there are cosmetic operations she may need that the NHS (the UK’s health service) may not fund, like having her nose reconstructed or a prosthetic ear attached.”

Financial promises

Toward the end of 2014, the Soffe family said they were promised “financial assistance” by Al Asmakh, along with assurances that the company would help fund the specialist care Elizabeth would need for the rest of her life.

They were instructed to claim the money from Al Asmakh’s insurance company. But doing so while not living in Qatar has proved difficult.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Kathea Pinto/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

This is in part because the insurance company has asked the family to obtain a medical report assessing Elizabeth’s needs. But since the baby cannot travel, Liam Soffe said he is still waiting to see if a UK medical report is acceptable.

Lacking responses from the insurance company, and unable to attend meetings in person in Qatar, the Soffes have also tried but failed to reach Qatar’s embassy in London and its foreign affairs ministry by letter.

Family friends have also been attempting to make contact with Al Asmakh and the insurance company in Qatar on the Soffes’ behalf, but have had no success.

Al Asmakh’s response

In a statement to Doha News last wek, Al Asmakh’s legal advisor Hamzeh Fuad said the company’s president Ibrahim Al Asmakh was “deeply saddened and perturbed” when he had first heard of Elizabeth’s injuries and that he “continued to be concerned for her well being.”

Fuad confirmed that all of the company’s properties are covered by an insurance policy that provides for compensation of up to QR5 million per insured event.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Heather/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

However, he added that it was the family’s responsibility to pursue their claim directly with the insurance company:

“We need to emphasize that it is not Mr. Al Asmakh’s or the Group’s responsibility to personally follow the progress of the actual insurance claim or claims filed by the beneficiaries of insurance policies as the case of the members of the Soffe Family.”

It is purely a direct relationship between the beneficiary (Soffe Family) and the Insurance Company.”

Fuad added that the company had spoken to the insurance firm about the claim after hearing from Liam Soffe.

He said that insurance providers had told Al Asmakh that the Soffe family had not submitted the medical and police reports requested to process the claim.

Elizabeth Soffe's crib

Soffe family

Elizabeth Soffe’s crib

In response, Liam Soffe said that Al Asmakh’s position was “disappointing but not surprising.”

“Elizabeth will spend her whole life dealing with the result of the faulty wiring in a villa owned by Al Asmakh and they say they are deeply saddened but ultimately not providing any assistance to her,” he said.

Legal avenues

With negotiations stalled, the Soffes are now considering taking legal action. Their case would be based on correspondence documenting a series of electrical faults in their villa prior to the fire, Liam Soffe said.

“It (the legal route) will be long and traumatic for us, but we have to do everything we possibly can for Elizabeth. We need to tell her when she’s older that we did everything we could.”

Soffe declined to say how much money the family thinks Elizabeth will need to pay for future care and equipment.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

“It’s very difficult to predict a figure for someone’s life – we just want to get in a position where we are talking about a figure,” he said.

He added that the family will consider seeking out specialist burns care centers in the US and France if they receive extra funds.

A generous community

In the immediate aftermath of the fire at the Soffe’s villa, the expat community in Qatar rallied to raise funds for the family.

Friends in Qatar held a charity fundraising night and also donated to an online charitable fund, which has raised more than £64,000 (QR310,700) to date.

The family used some of this money to help fund organizations that have helped them in the past two years, Liam Soffe said:

“As well as using this money to help Elizabeth, we also made a donation from these funds to the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, to the Ambulance Service which transferred her from London and to the charity which ran the accommodation we stayed in near the hospital.”

“It’s been great to be able to give back.”

Thoughts?

Photos courtesy of the Soffe family

Six-month-old Irish expat Elizabeth Soffe is facing her 13th operation to treat serious burns she received in a fire at her villa in Qatar, her father has told Doha News.

Elizabeth is receiving treatment at Birmingham Children’s Hospital in the UK, where she remains on a ventilator and has seven different IV lines providing sedatives, pain medicine and antibiotics.

As she prepares to undergo surgery today, her father Liam Soffe said that it is “impossible to know” how many more operations lie ahead:

“She will need many more over the next few weeks and as she grows up she will need constant visits to the doctors here to ascertain the need for more surgeries.  Other children in similar positions have had well over 100 surgeries,” he said.

The family, which earlier this month urged fellow Qatar residents to double-check electrical outlets in their homes, said their situation has been exacerbated by a lack of contact and support from their landlord.

Villa fire

On Thursday, May 29, Elizabeth had been napping in a cot directly underneath an air-conditioning unit at her family’s rented villa in a popular compound – Beverly Hills 7, which is owned by Al Asmakh.

An official Civil Defense report about the exact cause of the fire is pending, but it appeared that the AC unit had caught fire, which spread to the baby’s cot.

Elizabeth suffered severe burns on 60 percent of her body, and doctors at Hamad Hospital advised the family to seek specialist treatment overseas.

Crib

Soffe family

Following assistance from the Qatari government and the Irish Embassy in Abu Dhabi a place was eventually found for Elizabeth at the specialist pediatric burns unit at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

In a statement sent to Doha News, the Soffe family told us that they wanted to express their “deep appreciation” to the Qatari government for their help, and for help given by other groups and individuals in Doha.

Lack of support from landlord

However, the family has told Doha News that the same cannot be said for their Beverly Hills 7 landlord Al Asmakh, whose actions have made “a very grim situation even more unbearable than it already is.”

The family state that their rent for June and the deposit on their villa have not been returned by the company, and that the temporary accommodation provided to house their three other children after the fire was withdrawn earlier than promised.

They also said that they have received no communication from the company or details about the company’s insurance, despite repeated attempts to get in touch.

Speaking to Doha News earlier this month, Al Asmakh General Manager Fadi Barakeh pledged to send a statement in response to the family’s allegations. But 10 days later, no official response has been issued.

However, during a phone conversation, Barakeh said that his company offered temporary accommodation to the family, and had worked hard to return the villa to a habitable standard so that the Soffes could move back in as soon as possible.

He also said that the June rent had been taken in error as the check had already been presented to the bank, and that it had not been returned because the individual nominated by the family to deal with the company had not come to collect it.

He added that the company was prepared to offer the family financial support if they needed it.

In response, the Soffe family sent us this statement:

“Frankly, we are gobsmacked that Al Asmakh can describe the house as being fit for human habitation.  As of three days ago, there were no upstairs windows in the property – and there were loose electrical wires trailing up the outside carport and right through the villa itself.

It is totally disingenuous for Al Asmakh to claim they have tried to return the rent to the family. The simple fact of the matter is that two family friends repeatedly tried to get this issue resolved for more than a fortnight.

They have tried to make it as awkward and inconvenient as possible by insisting that the family’s nominated representative must collect the money in person. Why can’t they simply return the money to the bank account that they took it from in the first place or send the cheques to the nominated representative?

We also take particular exception to Fadi Barakeh’s remarks about making an unspecified contribution to the fund set up to help pay for Elizabeth’s future care. There is still no sign any contribution on the company’s behalf.”

The family state that Al Asmakh evicted their relative and three other children from temporary accommodation seven days after the fire.

They claim that the Beverly Hills Al Rayyan compound manager told them that they had to leave their loaned apartment as new tenants were moving in, and that they were offered no alternative accommodation.

Finally, the family allege that they had called compound maintenance to fix the air-conditioning unit in question just 12 days before the fire, because it had been leaking water.

In addition, they state that they had sent at least 10 emails to Al Asmakh about various maintenance issues with their villa, including a problem with their electric cooker, which they claim was still faulty after a technician had visited.

The company has not responded to a request for comment on these specific issues.

Fundraising efforts

The Soffe family remains concerned about funding Elizabeth’s care, as her Irish nationality means that she does not qualify for free healthcare in the UK. They believe their insurance coverage, which is currently paying the bills, may soon cease.

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Soffe family handout

The Soffes are also facing significant travel costs, and accommodation costs during what is likely to be a lengthy stay in Birmingham.

In response, family members have set up a charitable fund designed to meet these needs, so far raising nearly £40,000 (QAR247,921).

Family friends in Qatar also recently held a successful charity fundraising night at the Doha Rugby Club, which is planning additional events in the coming months.

Speaking to Doha News, Sinead Soffe said:

“It was amazing to see photos of my friends all wearing t-shirts with Elizabeth’s face on them (at the event). Very humbling.”

Anyone wishing to make a donation to the fund can find out more here.

Thoughts?