Oleh Vernyk: why I started struggling for the right of the affected Vasylkiv residents to a compensation?

People often ask me: Oleh, why did you start struggling for the right of the affected Vasylkiv residents to a compensation only in the late 2016, almost 18 months after the tragedy in Kriachky? This is an absolutely fair question. Therefore, my answer has to be well-founded.

First of all, I must note that Vasylkiv residents requested me to intervene as early as in autumn 2015. As a trade unionist renowned in Ukraine, I was prepared then for a serious struggle with incredibly greedy oligarchs, who were reluctant to announce a compensation even to the families of the killed and injured firefighters. I am not only a trade unionist, but also a lawyer by occupation. Well aware that the brunt of the struggle for fair compensation will be concentrated in the Ukrainian courts, I had to find some legal instruments to achieve the goal. And, unfortunately, it took a long time. Over 15 years of teaching at the Law Faculty of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, I met hundreds of the best lawyers of Ukraine and I definitely had the ones to ask a rather simple but still difficult question, what can we do ??? I didn’t receive a response for a long time. And there were objective legal reasons for it.

The tragedy affected many people, so my fellows and I immediately decided that the lawsuit should be a collective thing. However, we know that our government annually revises the infamous Law of Ukraine on Court Fee (2011) and keeps increasing it. It was ghostly at that time to imagine that hundreds and thousands of the affected Vasylkiv residents would find enough money to pay the court fee and hope that the court would decides to merge all claims into a single collective lawsuit.

The Law of Ukraine on Public Associations (2012) didn’t allow the NGO to apply to the court to protect the interests of its members, unfortunately. I mean that such a great tool as a “public association” could not be applied to the court in practice. In November 2016, we registered our Foundation to Overcome the Vasylkiv Tragedy Consequences, but has no specific action plan at that time.

We were inspired by international practice and great American films such as Civil Suit and Erin Brockovich, where the main characters-lawyers are working in good faith and bring people together to file collective environmental claims, and ultimately win difficult cases against powerful corporations polluting the environment and poisoning the people.

At the same time, the Law of Ukraine on Environmental Protection (1991) defines the right of NGOs in the field of environmental protection to sue claims for damages caused by violation of laws on environmental protection, including those caused to the health and property of individuals and civil society organizations.

Of course, there also was a judgment of the Constitutional Court dated November 28, 2013 (No. 12-rp/2013), but the corresponding precedents did not appear for a long time. Ultimately, at the end of 2016, we got the encouraging news – according to the judgment of the Supreme Economic Court of Ukraine (case No. 922/2110/16), NGOs were authorized to defend the moral and economic rights of their members in court, provided that such powers are stipulated in their constituent documents and applicable law. This inspired us to organize and choose this form of protecting the victims.

The Articles of Association of our Foundation provided for this option, so we developed all the logic of out further progression towards the judicial protection cherished by all on this basis. I mean that our Foundation eventually obtained a unique and legitimate opportunity to act as a plaintiff to protect the environmental rights and interests of its 3,059 members.

Finally, in late 2017, with the adoption of new procedural codes by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, the legislator established the right of the bodies and persons who legally have such a right to go to a court in the interests of others or in the public or common interest in cases established by law (Art. 4 of the Civil Procedure Code of Ukraine).

To record and document the moral damage caused to the affected Vasylkiv residents, at the end of 2016, we have approached the authoritative Association of Psychologists of Ukraine, which also assumed a great responsibility to document through a personal contact and survey of each affected Vasylkiv resident, and then to measure and define the amount of moral damage caused by the disaster through the application of professional scientific methods existing in Association.

Of course, at the beginning of our work to unite people in Vasylkiv for a collective action, we could not even imagine the amount of compensation for moral damage to be specified in the lawsuit. However, conscientious and fruitful work of experts of the Association of Psychologists of Ukraine eventually put everything in its place. Now that the trial has begun, we have finally computed the cumulative amount of our claim for the benefit of 3,048 victims, who are the members of our Foundation to Overcome the Vasylkiv Tragedy Consequences, i.e. UAH 1,277 million…


Oleh Vernyk

October 23, 2018.