If your property is damaged by fire spreading from your neighbour’s property do you have a claim against your neighbour? If the damage was caused by your neighbour’s negligence, then the answer is probably yes. But what if your neighbour was not at fault? In a recent case the Court of Appeal considered whether the neighbour might be subject to no-fault liability under what is called the rule in Rylands v Fletcher, after a nineteenth century case of that name.

The rule in Rylands v Fletcher

The rule in Rylands v Fletcher is that a property owner or occupier is liable for damage to other property (whether or not he was at fault) if he brings or keeps an exceptionally dangerous thing on his property, he recognises, or ought reasonably to recognise, that there is an exceptionally high risk of danger if that thing escapes, his use of his property is extraordinary or unusual, and the dangerous thing escapes and damages other property. Rylands v Fletcher concerned the escape of water from a reservoir which flooded a neighbouring mine but the rule has also been applied, for example, to a landslide of tons of mineral waste stored on a hillside, chemicals from a factory seeping into the water supply and even to a flagpole that fell onto neighbouring land.

The recent case

The recent case concerned an electrical fire at a tyre fitting and supply business in a unit on an industrial estate. There were about 3,000 tyres stored haphazardly on the premises.  Tyres are not inherently dangerous but if they catch fire then combustion develops rapidly and the fire is difficult to put out.  The fire completely destroyed the premises and the adjoining unit. In the county court the owner of the business was held liable under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher but that decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Application of the rule to the escape of fire

The rule has been applied several times in cases of spreading fire. It has been regarded as a modified form of the rule, applying where something is brought onto the property that is likely to catch fire and is kept in such a way that if it does catch fire it would be likely to spread to neighbouring property.  

The Court of Appeal rejected this formulation of the rule and held that it is an essential element of the rule that the dangerous thing brought onto the property escapes causing damage. That element was not present in the tyre fire case. The tyres were not exceptionally dangerous, but even if they had been, they did not escape; the fire was dangerous but it had not been brought onto the property.  So the rule could not apply in this case. The court did not entirely rule out the use of Rylands v Fletcher in the case of spreading fire, but it is likely only very rarely to be applicable. It will apply only where the fire has been brought onto the property and then escapes - for example sparks from a coal fire powering a steam engine – and where starting the fire was not an ordinary use of the property (not, for example, a coal fire in a normal domestic fireplace).

So, to return to the question posed at the beginning of this article, if the neighbour was not at fault, it is very unlikely that the neighbour will be liable. The best advice is to make sure you keep your insurance up to date.

Source: Stannard (t/a Wyvern Tyres) v Gore [2012] EWCA Civ 1248.