A coroner yesterday declared the deaths of four people when a To Kwa Wan tenement block collapsed last year were accidental - despite finding fault with both the owner and buildings officials.
Michael Chan Pik-kiu said he was unable to find the deaths unlawful and said no one should be held criminally responsible.
The victims' families said they may now take legal action against the owner, Chak Oi-luen, and buildings officials. One called the coroner's verdict after a six-day hearing 'unfair'.
Chan said both Chak and the officials had at least done something, however inadequate, to address the building's problems.
Chak's lawyer, Shahmim Khattak, said the ruling 'reflected every party's interests'. The relatives had called for the deaths to be found unlawful. Tong Ke, elder sister of 20-year-old victim Tong Qingtao, looked distressed as she left the court, while a survivor of the collapse said the verdict was unfair.
Relatives of the deceased and several survivors are considering a civil claim against the department or the owner, or both, said district councillor Pius Yum Kwok-tung.
Repair man Chu Wai-wing, who was accused by the Buildings Department during the inquest of triggering the collapse, was attributed a 'minor' role in the tragedy by the coroner. Chu has always said he did nothing wrong.
The 55-year-old block at 45J Ma Tau Wai Road collapsed in January last year because of its age and a serious lack of repairs, Chan ruled.
But this did not mean government surveyors were not at fault, he said. Naming surveyor Wan Chi-wai, who decided the block was in no imminent danger two months before it collapsed, Chan said: 'Perhaps Wan was wishy-washy when checking the building.
'He just went into the routine ... Perhaps it was a professional decision, but a wrong one.'
The coroner suggested the department cancel the practice of sending flat owners a non-binding advisory letter before giving a statutory repair order, after Wan admitted the letter was usually ignored.
He also suggested the department send a structural engineer as well as a surveyor to inspect serious cases, instead of relying on a surveyor alone, as happened in To Kwa Wan.
The coroner described landlady Chak as 'an unprofessional owner' who did not try her best to find a qualified person to do repairs, and who hoped officials would solve all her troubles for her.
He said: 'I believe Chak was hoping the department would declare the block dangerous and demolish the block for her so she could get back a piece of vacant land.'
The Urban Renewal Authority, which has taken over the site for redevelopment, said it had received a letter from two of the victims' families which asked it not to hand out compensation to Chak yet because they might be suing her.
An authority spokesman said it would contact the families again and seek legal advice. The authority said it had not heard from the owner so far.
In a statement issued last night, the Buildings Department offered condolences to the victims' families and said it would positively consider the coroner's suggestions.
But the statement said it was the duty of owners to maintain their properties.
It said it had launched measures to enhance building safety in October last year.