Mark Stannard (t/a Wyvern Tyres) v Robert Raymond Harvey Gore [04.10.12]

Court of Appeal confirms cases of fire damage are likely to be very difficult to bring within the application of the Rylands v Fletcher rule.

Wyvern Tyres, a tyre supplier and fitter, stored several thousand tyres at the premises from which it traded. An electrical fire broke out at these premises and quickly engulfed the tyre stockpile, before spreading to the neighbouring property of Mr Gore.

At first instance, the court found that Wyvern Tyres had stored the tyres haphazardly and that this was an unnatural use of the land within the meaning of the Rylands v Fletcher rule. This rule has been expressed as follows:

"… the person who for his own purposes brings onto his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril and, if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape."

Wyvern Tyres appealed this decision. The key question on appeal became whether there was a special application of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher in instances where property damage was caused by the spread of fire.

Decision

The Court of Appeal referred to Transco Plc v Stockport MBC [2003] UKHL 61, which is regarded as the decision that has most influenced the modern application of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher. Amongst other things, the judges noted that the spread of fire had not been excluded from the application of the Rylands v Fletcher rule, as some kind of "special category", by the Transco decision. However, it was also the view of the Court of Appeal that it would be difficult to successfully apply the Rylands v Fletcher rule to instances where fire had caused damage to property.

In coming to its decision, the court noted that the "thing" Wyvern Tyres had brought onto its land, namely the tyres, was not exceptionally dangerous. And Wyvern Tyres had no reason to expect that "escaping" tyres posed an exceptionally high risk of danger to its neighbours. In the court’s view, it was the fire that had escaped, not the tyres. Therefore, the claim did not fall under the Rylands v Fletcher principles. In any case, it was rightfully found that keeping tyres at a tyre-fitting business was not an extraordinary or unusual use of the land. Accordingly, the claim failed and Wyvern Tyres’ appeal was allowed.

Comment

It is clear from the judgment that the Court of Appeal does not want the spread of fire to become a "special category" under the Rylands v Fletcher rule. In coming to its decision, the Court of Appeal confirmed that both the object that catches fire, as well as the fire itself, need to "escape" in order for the rule to apply. In addition, the occupier of the offending property must have reason to suspect that the "thing" that was brought onto the property (in this case, tyres) poses a specific threat to their neighbours.

The decision makes it difficult to foresee situations where the rule can be applied to property damage caused by the spread of fire. One example though might be where a chemical stored on a property catches fire and is either spread through the air to neighbouring areas or runs over boundaries of neighbouring properties.