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Court of Appeal judgment on Rylands v Fletcher strict liability for the escape of fire

Jonathan Waite KC and Michele De Gregorio, instructed by DAC Beachcroft, appeared for the successful appellant in Stannard (t/a Wyvern Tyres) v Gore [2012] EWCA Civ 1248.

The claim concerned the escape of fire from the Defendant’s tyre fitting business to the Claimant’s adjoining premises on a trading estate in Hereford. The fire (electrical in origin) ignited the Defendant’s store of tyres and spread with great rapidity and intensity.  Although a claim in negligence was pleaded, the trial judge found that the Defendant had not been negligent in relation to either the start or the spread of the fire. Nonetheless, he held that the Defendant was strictly liable to the Claimant under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.

The trial judge found that tyres are not in themselves normally flammable, but they did have a special fire risk quality, namely if a fire did develop, with sufficient heat and flames, the tyres might ignite; and if they did they may burn rapidly and intensely. Further, the tyres were stored in a haphazard manner and in a large quantity (approximately 3,000) for the size of the premises. These findings brought the case within the rule in Rylands v Fletcher: the storage of tyres, in this particular situation, presented an exceptionally high risk of danger, and was a non-natural use of land.

A unanimous Court of Appeal (Ward, Etherton and Lewison LJJ) disagreed with the trial judge.

The majority reasoning (Ward and Etherton LJJ) was that in light of the comprehensive review of the Rylands v Fletcher principle by the House of Lords in Transco (2003), there was no scope for the principle to be applied to the facts of the case. It is an essential requirement that the defendant has brought some exceptionally dangerous “thing” onto his land, and that thing must escape causing damage. In the present case, where the fire had escaped but not the tyres, a claim based on Rylands v Fletcher must fail.  In any event the tyres were not exceptionally dangerous or mischievous.

Further, the commercial activity carried on by the Defendant as a motor tyre supplier was a perfectly ordinary and reasonable activity to be carried on in a light industrial estate, and was not therefore a non-natural use of the land for the purposes of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.

Lewison LJ agreed that the appeal should be allowed, but would have gone further in limiting the scope of strict liability for the escape of fire. Following a comprehensive review of over 600 years of authority, Lewison LJ concluded that s.86 of the Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act 1774 provides a defence where a fire is started accidentally (meaning “without negligence”); this defence would apply to a claim brought under Rylands v Fletcher. Thus, where a fire is not deliberately or negligently started, an occupier of land will not be liable to his neighbour unless he or she is negligent in failing to prevent its spread.

This case will have significant ramifications for fire damage claims generally.  It is yet another example of Crown Office Chambers’ involvement in this field, following on from the Buncefield litigation, Milton Keynes v Nulty/NIG, Harooni v Rustins Ltd, Cadbury / Trebor Bassett v ADT, and Smith v UKPN.

The judgment is available here.

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