The Facts and the Lower Court's Decision
The Defendant carried on the business of supply, fitting and balancing car and van tyres. Some 3000 tyres were stored in his building. The Lower Court had held that the tyres were not in themselves flammable and would not ignite unless there was sufficient flame or heat from another source. However, once the tyres were ignited and fire took hold it would be difficult to put out. The primary source of the fire which caused the damage was electrical and the Lower Court found that the Defendant had not been negligent since all equipment had been properly checked. Therefore only a claim under the principle of Rylands v. Fletcher could succeed. This Victorian case decided that liability was strict where a "person…for his own purposes brings onto his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes…". If these conditions are satisfied then negligence need not be proved. It has since been held that to be the subject of the principle the land must be used for non-natural purposes and that any damage caused must be foreseeable.
Rylands v. Fletcher
Over the years since Rylands v. Fletcher was decided, the case has been subject to much criticism but the principle still survives, although recovery under it is rare. Changing social conditions have affected the definition of "non-natural user" and "dangerous" items. For example, in the case of Musgrove in 1919 the Court decided that a car was a dangerous thing to bring into a garage leading to the risk of petrol vapour igniting and escape of fire.
The Court held that damage caused by fire from adjoining property can fall within the Rylands v. Fletcher principle although such cases will be rare. It is the dangerous "thing" which must escape in order to engage the principle, not the fire. The principle requires that the "thing" is brought onto the land by the building owner. Examples of situations where fire may be actionable under the principle are likely to be limited to cases where fire presents a high and foreseeable risk of damage if it escapes to adjoining property and has been deliberately or negligently started by the occupier. However to start a fire will often be outside the principle as being an ordinary use of land. The Court said that the Musgrove case was now at best of doubtful authority and probably confined to its facts.
The Risk of Danger
In the absence of negligence, the case could not succeed because what was brought onto the premises was a large stock of tyres which were not in themselves dangerous. There was no evidence that the Defendant should have recognised that there was an exceptionally high risk of danger if the tyres were to escape. In any event, the tyres did not escape but rather the fire did so whereas the tyres remained burning on the Defendant's premises. Further, keeping a stock of tyres, even in the large numbers and the "haphazard" manner the Lower Court found, was not in the circumstances an extraordinary or unusual use of the land. The claim therefore failed.
The 1774 Act - Still in Force
Even before Rylands v. Fletcher, there had been legislation limiting the liability of building owners for fire arising on their premises. Section 86 of the Fire Prevention (Metropolis) Act 1774 is still in force and prohibits recovery in the UK as a result of "accidental" fires. The Court was divided on the precise impact of Section 86 of the 1774 Act but it appears unlikely to preclude recovery under Rylands v. Fletcher, albeit restricting it to circumstances where the building owner has acted either negligently or deliberately in beginning a fire and failing to prevent its spread.
The decision should provide some comfort to property owners in that it indicates the limited ambit of strict liability under the Rylands v. Fletcher principle in the case of fire. An occupier of land will not be liable for an outbreak of fire under this principle unless he started a fire on his land in a dangerous situation and failed to do what was reasonable to prevent the spread of a resultant fire. If the fire spreads without his negligence, he will be protected under the 1774 Act in respect of fire damage caused accidentally.