ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - A number of residents of a northern Ontario community still reeling from a deadly roof collapse at a local commercial hub have launched a $30-million class-action lawsuit against those they allege could have prevented the accident.
The suit has been spearheaded by the owners of a restaurant shuttered by the collapse of the Algo Centre Mall and was filed on behalf of those plaintiffs who claim they suffered physical, emotional or financial harm in the tragedy that killed two local women.
The suit's notice of action names the owner of the Algo Centre Mall, Eastwood Mall Inc. and its controller Robert Nazarian, the city of Elliot Lake, the provincial government, and an unnamed engineer "who approved the structure of the mall a short time prior to this incident."
The notice alleges the defendants ignored warnings of dangerous safety conditions in the city's commercial hub and failed to conduct adequate inspections that may have prevented the deadly collapse. The allegations have not been proven in court.
Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and 37-year-old Lucie Aylwin were killed after a section of roof came crashing through the two-story building on June 23.
The plaintiffs said the incident not only wiped out many of the town's economic resources, but created a scene of terror that left lasting emotional scars.
"I heard a terrible rumbling sound and saw the debris falling into the escalator area. I began to be struck by falling debris myself as my employee and I raced to get out of the area, terrified that we were going to be killed," read a statement from Elaine Quinte, owner of Hungry Jack's restaurant and one of the suit's lead plaintiffs.
"It was a horrifying experience and I still suffer loss of sleep and I get overcome with emotion whenever I think of the events of the day," she said.
Lawyer Doug Elliott said he expects several hundred plaintiffs to join in the suit, adding the Aylwin and Perizzolo families have already signed on. He said the bereaved community deserves compensation for the loss of lives and businesses.
Elaine Quinte's husband, Jack, said the mall had been in a poor state of repair for years. He said his wife had reported at least one incident involving a chunk of concrete crashing through the ceiling into the restaurant, adding management ignored her concerns.
"There were many warnings that the roof was in a bad state of repair and something should have been done to prevent this terrible situation, which has been devastating to our family and to many others," he said in a statement.
A lawyer representing the mall's owner was not immediately available to comment on the class-action suit, but has previously said the shopping centre had received $1 million worth of renovations and had been inspected on a regular basis. A source with the owner's company has said the two-storey centre underwent a structural study in May and received a passing grade.
Elaine Flis, a spokeswoman with the Ontario office of the Attorney General, said the province would defend the claim if an action is commenced.
The City of Elliot Lake did not respond to a request for comment.
The collapse has also taken a toll on the city's economy.
Todd Stencill, the general manager of the local chamber of commerce, said the mall was home to at least 10 per cent of the city's retail space.
The building had also housed the library, one of the city's two hotels and grocery stores, the health unit office, a gym and several government service offices.
The collapse is thought to have wiped out an estimated six per cent of the wages in the entire community, Stencill said.
The Ministry of Labour had paid six visits to the mall over the past three years in response to complaints about unsafe conditions. The suit alleges the ministry's inspections were inadequate and the city did not heed those long-standing complaints.
Safety concerns also played a roll in the abortive efforts to rescue Perizzolo and Aylwin from the wreckage of the mall after the roof caved in.
Teams armed with heavy equipment were forced to call off their search two days after the collapse, saying the structure was too fragile for a traditional rescue effort.
The operation resumed hours later after residents took to the streets in protest and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty intervened. Search crews were forced to dismantle a section of the building from the outside in order to retrieve the bodies trapped inside.
McGuinty has ordered a public inquiry into the collapse, and the provincial police force has launched a criminal investigation.
— By Michelle McQuigge in Toronto