The owners of the Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare which was destroyed in a devastating blaze four years ago claimed a “victory for the truth” today after a judge ordered an alarm company to pay them £30m in damages.
Brother and sister Kerry and Michelle Michael conceded they were unlikely ever to receive the money from System 2 Security after it was placed into administration just three days before a hearing at Bristol Mercantile Court.
Judge Mark Havelock-Allan found a “high degree of negligence” against the company which was accused of failing to respond to the early morning fire alarms which first sounded at 1.35am at the North Somerset resort on 28 July 2008.
Emergency services however were not summoned to the blaze until 7am when it was spotted by a member of the public resulting in the virtual destruction of the Grade II listed building.
Mr Michael, who had only owned the building for five months, said he had spent hundreds of thousands pounds on the legal action after seeking to quash “rumours and innuendo” in the wake of the blaze.
“It is a victory in so much as we have got to the truth. In monetary terms it is not a victory because they took it to the wire. We lost a Grade II listed building. It was important to us to have our day in court as to who was to blame,” he said.
“We will continue to pursue the company, its directors, insurers and anyone else that provided advice to System 2 Security before or since the fire,” he added.
The judge found “no contributory negligence” on behalf of the Michaels’ company, Grand Pier Ltd, and awarded an immediate payment of £30m plus interest.
The Michaels have since undertaken a £51m redevelopment of the site, which reopened in October 2010 and now welcomes 3.5m visitors a year.
An investigation by firefighters was unable to pin point the exact cause of the fire blaming it on an electrical fault. Smoke could be seen from the wooden structure up to 10 miles away.
Mr Michael, who previously ran insurance and property businesses before buying the Edwardian pier, said he and his sister had been devastated by the blaze which claimed one of the British seaside’s most cherished landmarks. “It was a surreal time. It was like we were on the outside looking in on someone else’s nightmare.
“Irrespective of how it happened I felt responsible because it happened on my watch. This magnificent structure had stood for 100 years and I had been there for five minutes and it had burnt down. My immediate reaction was to rebuild it.”
Mr Michael said the pier had been rebuilt in concrete and steel and was staffed 24 hours every day. “It is as safe a building as any in the UK,” he said.
A claim against sub-contractors Essex-based Yeoman Monitoring Services was settled privately, with no admission of liability, earlier this year.
David Cogle, the former director of System 2 Security, told the BBC his company had paid more than £100,000 in legal costs. “What it would have cost to fight it would have finished the company off. It was just as easy to retire and let them have judgement,“ he said.