WASHINGTON – Victims and families of garment workers killed in the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh have filed a negligence and wrongful death civil lawsuit against Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and Children’s Place and the government of Bangladesh, alleging they ignored warning signs that could have prevented the tragedy.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges that the three U.S. retailers had apparel made in the Rana Plaza complex and “acted negligently and/or recklessly in failing to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for garment factory employees” at the complex. The government of Bangladesh was also named as a defendant.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and relief, but attorneys said the aggregate amount in the claim exceeds the minimal threshold requirement of $5 million in class-action lawsuits. Attorneys said there are thousands of potential class members.
Attorneys representing workers and relatives have also sued companies and the Bangladesh government in three similar and new international complaints, including in Canada, Spain and Italy, according to Jonathan Greenbaum, attorney with Coburn & Greenbaum, who is representing the plaintiffs in the U.S. case.
“It is a system of using subcontracting as we lay it out,” Greenbaum said in an interview. “They knew about subcontracting. The subcontractor contracted to other subcontractors and there is very limited monitoring of labor standards. We feel that [retailers and brands] had a duty to know how, where and under what conditions their products were being manufactured and sourced. They turned a blind eye or did nothing about it.”
The eight-story Rana Plaza complex collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing more than 1,230 people and injuring another 2,515, according to the lawsuit. The tragedy sparked a global outcry and scrutiny of the $20 billion garment export industry in Bangladesh. The attention led to the launch of two initiatives involving major brands and retailers, and reform efforts, inspections, training and remediation at thousands of garment factories in the country.
The U.S. lawsuit was filed by Abdur Rahaman on behalf of Sarifa Belgum, a mother of four children who died in the collapse, and Mahamudul Hasan Hridoy, a worker. Hridoy suffered head trauma and fractures and was in a coma for 17 days. He now suffers from chronic pain and is unable to walk or work, according to the lawsuit.
“Despite significant warning signs that the building was uninhabitable, including illegal construction and at least one warning from an engineer the day before the collapse, the manufacturing companies required employees to come to work,” the suit alleged. “The construction of the Rana Plaza building did not meet even basic building safety standards.”
The plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit that Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney’s and The Children’s Place knew that Bangladesh factories had an “extremely poor record of workplace safety standards and industrial building standards,” citing several accidents leading up to the Rana Plaza collapse.
“Additionally, retailer defendants in the United States knew or should have known that the Bangladesh garment industry required significant oversight to ensure safe and healthy working conditions in garment factories, including oversight in relation to structural integrity of buildings,” the complaint said.
Companies sourcing product in factories in Bangladesh knew about subcontracting and “reasonably foresaw” that their business practices of subcontracting, without adequate supervision inspection and audits, would put workers at risk of personal injury or death, the lawsuit also alleged, which prompted companies to publicly announce their internal workplace safety measures.
The suit further alleged that the retailers named in the complaint “breached their duty to workers in the Rana Plaza building by failing to implement standards and oversight mechanisms designed to ensure the health and safety of workers who manufactured clothing for their stores.”
Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction requiring defendants to implement labor practices consistent with international standards for worker health and safety.
Workers are also accusing the Bangladesh government of “breaching its duty to its citizens.” The lawsuit accused the government of failing to “properly inspect the building, failing to ensure compliance with local construction standards, and most significantly, failing to ensure the safety of factory workers.”
The suit alleged that three stories were illegally added to the Rana Plaza complex and that the Bangladesh government did not monitor construction of it nor inspect it for compliance with building codes.
Despite workers seeing and reporting cracks in the Rana Plaza complex and a building engineer declaring the complex unsafe, managers demanded that workers return to work on the day of the tragedy.
“The building’s collapse was foreseeable,” the suit declared.
Greenbaum said the workers are trying to obtain compensation for the tragedy and said a class-action lawsuit may be the only way to obtain compensation for families and those workers suffering from injuries from the collapse.
The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, which has the International Labour Organization as neutral chair, has raised around $21.5 million. The donations include contributions from global brands, trade unions and the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s Fund. But the fund has fallen short of its $30 million goal by about $8.5 million, according to stakeholders, and payments to survivors and families are said to be slow. Pressure on more companies to donate has also intensified.
Greenbaum said “absent” adequate compensation for victims and families, whom he said have been “devastated” by the Rana Plaza collapse, their only recourse is in court.
“We would prefer the claims process route and we like to see that that is seen through, but absent that — it is being held up for certain reasons which are beyond our control – this may be the last avenue to seek redress,” Greenbaum said.
A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company had no comment on the pending litigation.
Calls and e-mails to J.C. Penney and The Children’s Place were not returned at press time.