Rylands v Fletcher6 is one of the most iconic judgments ever to have been handed down by an English court. It established the principle that a person who brings something onto his land which is likely to do mischief if it escapes, keeps it at his peril and will be strictly liable for any damage caused by the thing’s escape. In Stannard (t/A Wyvern Tyres) v Gore7, the Court of Appeal has given helpful guidance on the application of the Rylands v Fletcher rule to cases involving the escape of fire. Property and liability insurers will be pleased to note that it applies only in very restricted circumstances.
Mr Stannard ran a business supplying and fitting tyres and stored around 3,000 of them on his land. An electrical fire broke out, which ignited the tyres. The fire spread rapidly, destroying neighbouring premises owned by Mr Gore. Mr Gore brought a claim in negligence and in strict liability.
The first instance decision
At first instance, the negligence claim was dismissed; there was no evidence that Mr Stannard had been negligent in the manner in which he had maintained the electrics or stored the tyres.
However, Mr Stannard was held strictly liable to Mr Gore under the Rylands v Fletcher principle. In this regard, the court held that although the tyres themselves were not flammable unless subjected to sufficient heat or flame, they did have a special fire risk quality. Moreover, the manner in which the tyres were stored meant there was an exceptionally high risk of damage to Mr Gore’s property if a fire broke out. The large quantity of tyres stored on the premises was out of the ordinary and was a “non-natural” use of the land. These factors brought the case within Rylands v Fletcher. Mr Stannard appealed.
The Court of Appeal decision
The only issue on appeal was whether the rule in Rylands v Fletcher had been correctly identified and applied, having regard to the principles for the modern application of the rule as laid down by the House of Lords in Transco Plc v Stockport MBC.8 In particular, should it be applied in fire cases as well as in other, more classic, cases of escaping dangerous things?
The Court of Appeal was unanimous in allowing the appeal.
Lord Justice Ward, giving the leading judgment, held that in an appropriate case damage caused by fire emanating from an adjoining property could fall within the Rylands v Fletcher rule. However, the appropriate case was likely to be “very rare” and this was not one of them. It is an essential requirement of the rule that the defendant has brought some exceptionally dangerous “thing” onto his land and that “thing” must escape, causing damage. In this case the “thing” was the tyres. They were not exceptionally dangerous and nor did they escape. What escaped was the fire and that had not been brought onto the land by Mr Stannard. Moreover, Mr Stannard’s business was a perfectly ordinary and reasonable use of the land, a light industrial estate.
Lord Justice Lewison agreed that the appeal should be allowed but would have gone further in limiting the scope of strict liability in relation to fire, concluding that section 86 of the Fires Prevention Metropolis Act 1774 (“...no action, suit or process whatever shall be had, maintained or prosecuted against any person in whose house... or other building or on whose estate any fire shall accidentally begin, nor shall any recompense be made by such person for any damage suffered thereby, any law, usage or custom to the contrary nothwithstanding...”) provides a defence to claims based on the rule in Rylands v Fletcher, at least where the fire was not deliberately started.
As Ward LJ himself noted, cases of fire damage are likely to be very difficult to bring within the Rylands v Fletcher rule since (1) it is the “thing” brought onto the land which must escape, not the fire started or exacerbated by it; (2) while fire may be a dangerous thing, the occasions when fire as such is brought onto the land may be limited to cases where the fire has been deliberately or negligently started by the occupier or one for whom he is responsible; (3) in any event, starting a fire on one’s own land may well be an ordinary use of the land. The reality is that claimants who have experienced similar problems to Mr Gore may well fail in their quest for compensation without evidence of negligence on the part of the defendants. They are unlikely to be comforted by Ward LJ’s words, “The moral of the story... make sure you have insurance cover for losses occasioned by fire on your premises.”