Escape of Fire - No Liability in Absence of Negligence
The recent decision of the Court of Appeal in Stannard (t/a Wyvern Tyres) v Gore reinforces the importance of a business ensuring that its premises are adequately insured against fire. It confirms that if a fire spreads from A's property to B's property, in normal circumstances A will not be liable to B unless it can be shown that A has been guilty of negligence.
The Rule in Rylands v Fletcher
Under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher, a landowner is strictly liable for things escaping from his land. In Rylands v Fletcher - a case dating from the mid-nineteenth century - the defendant mill-owner had constructed a small reservoir on his land. Through no fault of his, the water escaped from the reservoir and flooded Rylands' mine. Rylands sued Fletcher. The House of Lords ruled that, having caused the water to artificially accumulate on his land, Fletcher was strictly liable for the consequences of its escape. Over the years, the courts have periodically confirmed that the rule in Rylands v Fletcher remains part of the law. However, they have generally taken a restrictive approach to the rule - emphasising that a landowner will only be strictly liable where his use of his land was "non-natural". That concept has been interpreted narrowly in the context of modern circumstances. In one case, it was even suggested that use as a munitions factory might count as a "natural" use of land!
The Stannard Case
Stannard operated a business supplying and fitting tyres from a unit on a trading estate. Gore's premises were behind Stannard's. At the rear of its premises, Stannard kept around 3,000 tyres. One evening, a fire broke out on Stannard's premises. Fuelled by the ignition of the tyres, it soon spread to Gore's premises.
Gore sued Stannard in the County Court. Rejecting Gore's negligence claim, the Judge concluded that the fire had been caused by Stannard's electrical system, and that there was no evidence that Stannard had failed to exercise reasonable care. He therefore dismissed the negligence claim. However, he ruled that Stannard was strictly liable to Gore under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.
The Court of Appeal allowed Stannard's appeal. The Court accepted that, in an appropriate case, the rule in Rylands v Fletcher might apply to damage caused by fire.
However, such cases are likely to be very rare because:
* It is the "thing" brought onto the land which must escape - not the fire which is started or increased by the "thing";
* Liability may well might be limited to cases where
the fire is started deliberately or negligently by the landowner or by some for whom he was responsible; and
* In any event, starting a fire on your land might be an ordinary use of the land.
In the Stannard case, the 'thing' brought onto the premises was the large stock of tyres. Tyres as such are not exceptionally dangerous. The tyres had not escaped. In any event, keeping a stock of tyres on the premises of a tyre-fitting business - even a very large stock - was not an extraordinary or unusual use of the premises. It followed that Stannard was not strictly liable under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.
If you would like to know more, please contact Martin Banham-Hall or Caroline Wilton.
Filed: 14/01/2013 12:34:17