London, Dec. 19: A British tourist who alleges the management of the Taj Mahal Hotel did not do enough to protect him from Pakistani terrorists during the siege of Mumbai in November 2008 was given permission today to pursue claims for heavy damages in the High Court in London.
William Pike, 33, who was left paralysed after falling 50ft from his bedroom window while trying to escape the extremists, was today supported by a judge who agreed that pursuing the claim through the courts in India would take far too long.
Justice Stewart said: “I am persuaded that it is clearly the case that England is the appropriate forum for the trial of this action.”
Others see the ruling as perverse in that the authorities in Pakistan, where the terrorists originated, are not being sued.
An Indian businessman who was caught up in the attack on the Taj said: “I can’t see how the Taj can be blamed — it was a victim of terrorism. Many of its staff died trying to protect guests.”
Lawyers for the Taj had wanted the case thrown out on the grounds that the High Court in London could not have jurisdiction over events that occurred in India.
Neither the foreign office nor the ministry of justice was willing to comment on the case which many will see as opening a Pandora’s box. In theory, today’s ruling means any victim of terrorism anywhere in the world can file a claim for compensation in the courts in London if some kind of British link can be established.
Pike, a freelance filmmaker, has been joined in his legal action by his former girlfriend, Kelly Doyle.
They say they had not been given proper advice about emergency procedures and evacuation routes and, when they heard doors being kicked in and shots fired, had to break a window with furniture from their smoke-filled room and try to reach the ground using bedding and curtains knotted together.
The judge said Pike and Doyle “have clearly demonstrated and proved that granting a stay in English proceedings and requiring proceedings to be commenced in India would amount to a denial of justice”.
Pike broke his back and pelvis and also fractured his left wrist and right elbow when he fell.
“I’m very relieved about the judgment,” said Pike. “For one thing, it means that justice will be allowed to take its course — if the trial were to take place in India, it simply wouldn’t have happened. So now, regardless of the outcome, at least I’ll know whether the hotel could have done more to ensure my safety, as well as everybody else’s in the building.”
Pike’s lawyer Russell Levy, from Leigh Day, maintained that the case should be heard in the UK, where his client lives and where the Indian Hotels Company Ltd has a substantial business presence.
Its interests include the St James Court Hotel and two upmarket restaurants — the Bombay Brasserie and Quilon.
Levy said before the hearing: “Trying to fight the largest corporate group in India, and India’s richest man (apparently a reference to Ratan Tata), through the Indian courts would be an exercise in futility.”
Justice Stewart agreed: “My estimation is that the time this case would take to reach the probable end stage in India is some 20 years ie. about 15 years in high court plus 5 years on first appeal.”
The court heard how the equivalent case in the UK courts would take 2 to 3 years.
Justice Stewart went on to explain: “(Pike) is a man who is not quite 34 years of age. A favourable decision in England would give him the money substantially to improve his standard of living and enable him to better come to terms with his disability when he is about 36 years of age. If the proceedings have to be brought in India then he would be something like 50 to 55 years of age before that occurs.”
Welcoming the ruling, Levy said: “This is a great relief for our client who is consigned to a wheelchair. The truth is that he would not be able to pursue his claim in India. Justice would have been denied, which is precisely what the defendants were trying to achieve.”
He went on: “As much as they dislike the prospect of having to do so, the Indian Hotels Company Ltd will now have to defend this case in a court of law. The main issue will be whether or not their security and safety systems were adequate to protect guests and staff. It is our view, based on expert evidence, that they failed to take account of warnings prior to the attack in November 2008 that their hotel was a target and that they were more concerned with not worrying guests and staff than taking steps to secure their safety.”
Levy said: “This judgment is of importance to all victims of accidents abroad. It will also be of great interest to Indian victims of the attacks who are effectively prevented from pursuing claims in India because of the inadequacies of their current civil justice system.”
If Pike wins his case, the courts may award him in excess of a million pounds (Rs 10 crore). This would almost certainly set a precedent and encourage other claimants.
Statement from The Indian Hotels Company Limited, owner of Taj Hotels: The Indian Hotels Company Limited, the owner of The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai is disappointed that the English High Court has accepted jurisdiction to hear a claim for compensation by Mr Pike and Ms Doyle, two guests of the hotel when the hotel, as also multiple other locations across the city of Mumbai, were attacked by terrorists on 26th November 2008. The acceptance of jurisdiction by the English court was made without any detailed consideration of the merits of the claim; it was a purely procedural decision. This great Indian tragedy in which many staff and guests were killed or injured was not the fault of the hotel owners and management and the claim will continue to be vigorously defended. Many of our brave staff will give evidence at the trial. We do not consider it appropriate to make any further comment at this time.
Taj Public Trust Fund information: In response to the outpouring of emotional support from well-wishers in India and across the globe, The Taj Public Service Welfare Trust Fund was set up to offer relief for those affected by the attack and to provide immediate assistance to all victims and their families — be it the general public, the security forces, employees of the Taj or employees of other establishments. Mr William Pike has already been the beneficiary from this trust. This trust fund has been further extended to cover relief to victims of sudden acts of violence, natural disasters and other tragic events that inflict damage to life and property.