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‘They left us high and dry’: Contractors, architect fail to pay family of Rita Vella killed in her home 22 years ago

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After over two decades of court hearings, lawyer fees and heartbreak, the family of Rita Vella, who was killed when her house in Sliema collapsed on top of her due to excavation works near her house 22 years ago, has nothing to show for it.

“I can’t even tell you how much we spent on legal fees, but I’m pretty sure that the compensation figure pales in comparison to what we spent. We spent €5,000 just to get the case started,” Rita Vella’s son, Paul, told The Shift, referring to the civil court case the family had filed.

In 2020, the court finally ruled that the persons in charge of those fatal excavation works, contractors Carmelo Micallef and Raymond Cutajar and architect Philip Azzopardi, owe the Vella family €67,000 in compensation. But two years later, the family has not received anything.

“What’s really vile is that we can’t even claim expenses for our lawyer because they were not included in the final sentence. So we had to sort out everything ourselves. We were left high and dry,” Vella said.

Vella stated that while Cutajar has repeatedly approached the family to pay out his share of the compensation, the others have not responded to multiple requests from the family and their lawyer.

Worse still, because the civil court ruled that the compensation must be paid ‘in solidum’ (meaning that Micallef, Cutajar and Azzopardi were to pay the sum together), the family cannot even accept the money that has been repeatedly offered to them by Cutajar.

Following the accident which cost Rita Vella her life, two court cases were initiated – in the civil and criminal court.

The criminal court found the contractors guilty of negligence but exonerated the architect from the same charge. Cutajar and Micallef were fined €4,000 each, which they appealed.

The case in the civil court took 17 years to conclude. Given the accused filed yet another appeal, it took until 2020 for the appeal to be thrown out and for the order for compensation to be issued.

“This length of time for a court case is absolutely ridiculous. This was a clear-cut case: my mother was in her home, so obviously, she had no fault in this,” Vella told The Shift.

Two years later, not a cent of those €67,000 owed to the Vella family has been paid. When asked whether they have ever managed to get any kind of justification from Azzopardi and Micallef, Vella insisted that they never managed even to contact them.

Their only option remains the most dreaded – taking the contractors and the architect to court, restarting their nightmare all over again.

“I just spoke to my lawyer a few days ago, and he told me that he has to proceed with taking them to court again over the unpaid compensation. We had told them that if they didn’t pay us by June, we would have to proceed with legal action. Now, we have no other option but to proceed,” Vella said.

“This was an enormous trauma for all of us, and I never wish for anyone else to have to experience something like this, which is why I’ve kept fighting against this negligence and have spoken up about all of the cases in which other people lost their lives too,” he added.

Through the circumstances his family has been put in, Vella has become an unofficial point of reference for people who have lost their homes and, in some instances, their loved ones.

He described how, following a series of similar accidents in the last five years, people who have had to deal with similar situations have reached out to him, often needing to ask about what they should do next or who they should talk to.

“To us at this point, it’s not even about the compensation because none of that will buy us the ability to bring my mother back. But these things are just unbelievable; there’s no deterrent for these crimes,” Vella said when discussing the systemic failures that led to these accidents.

“Contractors show up, make your house collapse, leave you for dead, and then pretend to fix things by laying down some cement,” he added.

When asked what needs to change, Vella was adamant about the need for beefed-up enforcement that would continuously monitor sites and ensure that complaints are investigated and dealt with before such a tragedy happens.

He also said that 22 years after his mother’s death, the government’s attempts at regulating the industry are “absolute rubbish”, adding that “we have learned nothing” since then and that the creation of authorities like the Building and Construction Authority is pointless unless duly enforced.

“And, to top it all off, it’s like nothing happened for these people, and there’s no support from the authorities whatsoever. None of these people should have been allowed to work after causing an accident like that, at least until the case was concluded,” Vella said.

“If a person kills someone else while driving, their licence gets suspended, and they’re certainly not allowed to go on like it’s nothing,” he added.


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