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Harry Lambert successfully defends Gas Company in explosion case

His Honour Judge Freedman, sitting as a Judge of the High Court, today handed down judgment in the case of Shepherd v Northern Gas Networks.

The case concerned an explosion in Sunderland in 2017, which destroyed two residential properties and caused significant personal injury.

The explosion was caused by an escape of gas, in turn arising out of corrosion of a pipe for which Northern Gas Networks were responsible. The Claimant argued that the Defendant had failed to adequately implement its policies, and those of the HSE, and that opportunities were missed to identify the corrosion and replace the pipe in question.

The Claimant also alleged that the Defendant had carried out works to the pipe and failed to take corrective action. However “in cross-examination, the claimant very fairly accepted that she had no specific recall of the work which was undertaken and, moreover, she thought that it was probably Gentoo [the housing association] who were carrying out the works. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this allegation was not pursued by” the Claimant.

At a trial in April 2022 in the Newcastle District Registry the court found in favour of the Defendant on every issue in dispute. The court held that the gas company had exercised reasonable care in all the circumstances and that the accident could not have been prevented. The Claimant’s interpretation of the HSE policies would “impose an excessive and wholly unreasonable burden on the defendant”. Thus although the Claimant was deserving of “very considerable sympathy” the claim was dismissed in its entirety.

The case is of wider interest for the consideration given to the applicability of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. The Claimant relied upon leading commentaries and textbooks to the effect that the doctrine always applied in the case of a gas leakage; but this proposition was resisted and rejected by the court.

In its judgment the learned judge acknowledged that “at first blush, I can well understand why it may be thought that in the circumstances of a gas explosion, the thing speaks for itself”.  “However”, he went on to add, “on closer analysis I am entirely satisfied this is not a case where res ipsa loquitur should apply”.

For further analysis of the res ipsa loquitur aspects of the case, click here; for the full judgment, click here.

The Defendant was represented by Harry Lambert, instructed by Weightmans.

The Claimant was represented by Paul Rose KC, instructed by Irwin Mitchell.


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