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Liability for fire damage

Whilst many people enjoy fireworks at this festive time of year it is accepted that fires can cause huge amounts of damage and have devastating impacts on lives. In a recent judgement the Court of Appeal has emphasised the importance of obtaining insurance against fire damage.

The case considered whether an occupant of a property could be liable to his neighbour for the spread of a fire onto his land under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher. Rylands decided that when someone brings onto their land a substance likely to cause damage for a non-natural purpose if it escapes then he will be liable to his neighbours for any damage caused by the substance escaping. Liability under Rylands is strict and so there is no need to prove fault on the part of the occupier.

In the current case the occupier ran a tyre fitting garage on an industrial site and stored tyres on his premises which caught fire due to an electrical fault. The fire spread to the neighbour’s premises as a result of tyres stacked on the occupiers land between the buildings and burnt both buildings down.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the rule in Rylands v Fetcher could give rise to liability in relation to fire but that this would be very rare. In this case because it was the tyres that were said to be the dangerous thing and they did not escape – they burnt with such heat and intensity that the fire spread but the tyres remained on the occupier’s premises – there could be no liability under Rylands. The Court also added that tyres were not a dangerous substance and that a tyre fitting garage was not an unnatural use of the land.

Liability for damage caused by fire is further restricted by the Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act 1774 which prevents a claim for damages being brought against an occupier of premises where a fire starts “accidentally”. In this context “accidentally” has been held to mean not intentionally or negligently.

In the light of this clarification of the law some of the final words of Lord Justice Ward are more prudent than ever: “Make sure you have insurance cover” as it is now a little bit harder to recover your losses elsewhere.

This article was written by Alistair Mason and Vaughan Jones.

About the author

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Vaughan Jones

Vaughan Jones is Partnership Chair and a specialist in corporate law.

Published: Monday 3rd December 2012
Categorised: Corporate Law, Commercial Property, Commercial Dispute Resolution

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