The recent fire that hit the Zen Tower in Dubai Marina is yet another reminder of the vulnerability of residents to such catastrophes. In fact, the incident was the latest in a spate of high-profile tower fires in recent years: Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers in November 2012, the Torch Tower in Dubai Marina in February 2015 and once more in August 2017, the Address Hotel on New Year’s Eve 2015, Sulafa Tower in July 2016 and Almas Tower in April. As with the preceding incidents, the Zen Tower fire had no casualty.
However, the devastating impact of such tragedy on the victims was compounded by the fact that most UAE residents are not covered by home insurance.
Causes of fires
While the combustion of high-rise buildings in the UAE seems to be common, the cause does not. In the case of the 2012 fire in JLT’s Tamweel Tower, it is believed that a carelessly disposed of cigarette caused the tower to catch fire. The infamous New Year’s Eve fire at the Address Downtown Hotel was caused by an electrical short circuit. The cause of the Zen Tower blaze has yet to be determined.
While the cause of the fires differs, the rapid spread of the blaze in each instance can be attributed to the use of flammable aluminium cladding on the building exterior. Experts say that up to 70 per cent of buildings in Dubai constructed before 2009 use non-fire resistant cladding material, although there are no official estimates available.
Following an update to the 2011 Fire and Life Safety Code, all buildings over 15m tall are required to use fire-resistant aluminium cladding. But the code is not applied retrospectively and existing towers will only have to comply with the new cladding regulations when the buildings are due for maintenance.
In the event of a fire, the responsibilities of the property owner and developer are generally not understood very well by tenants. In the Yallacompare survey, 11.7 per cent of respondents were under the impression that the landlord is responsible for home insurance. This is not the case.
Generally, the property developer and the owners’ association are responsible for the areas they maintain, such as public areas, but this does not extend to the tenants’ living space or personal possessions. Therefore, to obtain adequate cover, tenants need to take out an insurance policy, otherwise they will have to bear the costs for damages in the event of a fire, storm or flood.
The UAE Civil Transaction Law, issued by way of Federal Law No. 5 of 1985 (Civil Code) regulates fire insurance coverage and the duties and liabilities of the insurance provider. According to the law, the insurer shall cover all damages caused by the fire notwithstanding the reason of the fire, provided the damages are a direct result of the fire and not caused by deliberate or fraudulent actions of the insured or the beneficiary. The scope of insurance and, therefore, the compensation will vary, depending on the policy and the insurance company.
In the event of a fire that renders a building uninhabitable, tenants may seek to terminate the lease agreement. Usually, lease agreements are cancelled by mutual agreement between the landlord and tenant or by court order. The first step towards cancellation is to establish whether the tenant’s situation falls within the scope of the provisions of the Civil Code. If so, the next step will be to address a letter to the landlord detailing the situation, the grounds for the cancellation and the date of the loss of enjoyment, and requesting the return of all post-dated cheques and the refund of prepaid rent as well as any deposit as determined by the Civil Code.
If the landlord agrees to the cancellation, a confirmation should be obtained in writing and preferably signed by both landlord and tenant. If the landlord refuses to comply, the tenant can file a complaint with the Dubai Rental Committee, which shall include a request for the landlord to pay the costs incurred by the tenant and the costs of the proceedings.
How fires impact insurance premiums
As residents become increasingly aware of the risk of fire, demand for insurance cover will increase accordingly. Furthermore, despite the introduction of the Fire Safety and Life Protection code, some buildings in the city remain cladded with flammable material and have inadequate fire-safety measures. This means that the recent fire is unlikely to be the last of its kind. Getting insurance cover is therefore imperative for tenants. Underwriters have already begun to take note of the increased risk and have adjusted their rates accordingly.
For tenants who do not have sufficient insurance cover, there is a high probability that they will be responsible for covering the costs for all damages. In addition, a situation may arise where a tenant has to pay for a new apartment, while still having to pay rent pending lease cancellation. It is always advisable to consult a qualified lawyer to proceed with the situation efficiently and on legally safe ground.
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