Nováky most costly industrial accident in Slovak history

THE NOVÁKY explosion was the biggest insurance event in Slovak history, say insurers, with claims expected in the hundreds of millions of crowns, not including any money awarded in possible court settlements.

THE NOVÁKY explosion was the biggest insurance event in Slovak history, say insurers, with claims expected in the hundreds of millions of crowns, not including any money awarded in possible court settlements.

By March 9, a week after the explosion, Allianz had registered 180 insurance claims regarding private property, most involving damage to windows on houses and flats in Nováky, Prievidza and surrounding villages. Six cases involved damage to the foundations of homes. According to Allianz director Torsten Leue, half of the claims were settled in the first days following the blast.

Leue also said that Allianz had sent the VOP Nováky military repair facility, where the explosion occurred, a Sk40 million advance payment for the major damage the facility sustained.

Immediate compensation

On March 7, the cabinet approved compensation of Sk1 million from the government's reserve fund for the families of each of the victims who had left behind them wives, husbands or children.

The same amount was paid out late last year to the families of four miners killed in a cave-in at a coal mine, also in Nováky.

Three people were confirmed dead from the ammo facility blast at the time The Slovak Spectator went to print, but little hope remained that the five people still missing would be found alive. Compensation will not be paid in the latter cases until the victims are declared dead by the courts.

Prime Minister Robert Fico said that the family of one of the victims, an unmarried 21-year-old man, would receive compensation if it was shown that they had been dependent in some way on his income.

He also said that the most seriously injured of the 30 people wounded in the blast, a young man in critical condition, would receive compensation if his injuries proved long-term.

According to Defence Minister František Kašický, the families of the victims will each receive an extra Sk100,000 from the Defence Ministry, which is the 100-percent owner of the VOP Nováky facility. The Slovak Union of Defence Industry workers will contribute an extra Sk50,000 per family, while the Labour Ministry will give Sk25,000.

"Thus, even before they receive any government compensation, each of these families will receive Sk175,000 to get through this difficult period," said Kašický.

People injured or killed in the blast will also be receiving compensation from the Sociálna Poisťovňa (SP) state insurer, although the amount will vary in each case depending on how much the victims were earning. SP will also be covering the costs of funerals.

Court cases

In Slovakia, the only way that people affected by the blast can get higher compensation than that issued by the government or insurers is through a personal damages suit, legal experts said.

"The loss of a close person with whom you have an emotional relationship may qualify as a personal injury for which individuals have the right to demand moral or financial compensation," said lawyer Marek Benedik, who represented landowners near Žilina against the state during the construction of the KIA car plant in 2004.

"We've already seen people win such cases in court, both here and in the Czech Republic, in the case of medical malpractice and construction accidents."

For such suits to be successful, Benedik said, the plaintiff had to prove that VOP Nováky was negligent or broke laws or guidelines on bomb disposal, as well as that there was a connection between the explosion and the damage claimed, and that the damage was serious.

"They have to convince the courts that the damages are sufficiently grave to warrant compensation," he said.

Ed Fagan, a New York-based lawyer who has represented the World Jewish Council against the Swiss government in a Holocaust case, as well as other class-action suits around the world, said that people who suffered damage in the Nováky blast were unlikely to succeed in suing the Slovak government.

"The government like most other governments has sovereign immunity [a legal doctrine that governments can do no wrong], so unless there was some gross negligence there, something very, very bad, they will have to look for another way," he told The Slovak Spectator.

"One way is to go after the [private or government] clients that ordered services from the bomb disposal unit. These clients have to say how to handle the concrete type of ammunition, and they have to provide a warning that unless employees stick to these guidelines, someone could die. The plaintiffs in this case might be able to say that the instructions were in English, and that they couldn't read them," he said.

"In the US, following a case like this, lawyers would have suits filed in the courts within 24 hours of being approached by a client," Fagan said. "This is exactly the kind of cases I look for in the US. The next time I am in Vienna I will look at this case and see if I can do something for the residents of Nováky."

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