NEWS
08/05/2011 03:14 EDT | Updated 10/05/2011 05:12 EDT

Mexican judge says deadly hotel blast should be handled by civil lawsuit

Ottawa voiced disappointment Friday over a Mexican judge's decision to dismiss criminal charges in a blast at a Mayan Riviera resort that killed seven people, including five Canadians.

Judge Nicolas Pinzon said he denied prosecutors’ requests for arrest warrants because they filed charges against company directors or representatives rather than specific workers who installed an unauthorized natural gas line linked to the explosion.

The case should be handled as a civil lawsuit, Pinzon said.

"This doesn’t mean that this is going to go unpunished, I want to make that clear," the judge said. "This only means it will proceed by the correct route ... a civil proceeding."

The explosion, which ripped through part of the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in Playa del Carmen last November, was ultimately blamed on the gas line under the hotel's lounge.

Prosecutors allege the line, apparently meant to fuel a pool heating unit, was not properly installed or maintained. They claimed a leak from the line may have been set off by a spark from an electric switch or plug.

Charges ranging from homicide to professional misconduct were laid against five people, including contractors and resort workers.

"You can file civil proceedings against a company ... but in criminal cases, you have to go after the person who directly performed the act," Pinzon said. "The catch was that the prosecutors filed charges against the companies."

Pinzon said prosecutors specifically charged that key tests on the gas pipe were performed incorrectly.

"They argued that the pipe had a leak and that airtightness tests were not correctly carried out," Pinzon said. But because executives, and not the workers, were charged, "we cannot say: 'you, because of your fault, you caused all these consequences.'"

He raised the possibility that it would have been hard to prove no matter who was charged.

"The problem here is that because these are hidden installations, a buried pipe, to a certain extent, no one knows whether it is going to explode or not," he said.

The Canadian Foreign Affairs Department was not happy.

"This was a terrible tragedy, and our sympathies continue to be with the families and friends affected," Canadian Foreign Affairs spokesman Alain Cacchione said in an emailed statement Friday.

"Since the tragedy, the government of Canada has provided consular support to the victims' families and has pressed Mexican authorities to ensure a timely and transparent investigation. We are disappointed that the Mexican judicial system has not proceeded with charges against the individuals responsible for this incident."

The five Canadians killed were Malcolm Johnson of Prince George, B.C.; Chris Charmont and his nine-year-old son, John, of Drumheller, Alta.; Darlene Ferguson, 51, of Edmonton; and Elgin Barron of Guelph, Ont.

Eighteen others, many of them from Ontario, were injured. Two Mexicans were also killed in the blast.

Ferguson's brother, Barry Hoffman, declined to comment at length on the develop. He would only say that his family was "not surprised by the outcome."

The explosion blew out windows in the hotel's lounge area and left a metre-deep crater.

Local authorities initially said swamp gases produced by rotting vegetable matter trapped beneath the hotel might have triggered the blast. They later suggested an accumulation of sewage gases may have been a contributing factor.

The judge said large damage awards would be available in civil cases because moral and collateral damages can be claimed in those suits, while criminal cases rely largely on Mexican labour rates, which sets basic compensation in wrongful deaths cases at the equivalent of about $3,700.