Like Inspector Morse, judges often have to disentangle competing allegations to work out what happened. In Hi-Lite Electrical Ltd v Wolseley UK Ltd, Mr Justice Ramsey had to decide the cause of a fire in a submersible sump pump in a hairdressing salon. The pump installers, already found liable to the salon owners in other proceedings, sued the pump suppliers who joined the manufacturers in the proceedings. Different causes were put forward but the judge said that the claimant must always prove the cause of the damage on the balance of probabilities. He found that the cause was damage to the float switch cable by salon staff but he also decided that a residual current device should have been fitted by the installers and would have prevented the fire. If, however, the pump supplier had been liable under the Sale of Goods Act, would the negligent failure to fit an RCD have broken the chain of causation, reduced the damages or made an apportionment of liability appropriate?
No, was the answer. The failure to fit the RCD occurred before the fire and the assumed breach of contract was still an effective cause, even if the failure to fit the RCD was also a cause. The damage was not too remote, because an electrical fire was not unlikely to result from an electrical cable defect, and there were no grounds for apportionment. Contributory negligence is not a defence to strict contractual liability and in the absence of an ability to apportion damages under the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978 (where parties are both liable to a third party for the same damage) there is no other general ability to apportion damages.