By way of reminder, Rylands v Fletcher was concerned with the responsibility of a party that flooded his neighbour’s land. The Court was asked to decide whether there was an absolute duty upon an occupier not to cause damage by the keeping of dangerous substances or whether liability could be avoided if reasonable steps to avoid the damage were taken.
The conclusion of the House of Lords was that there was a strict liability and to quote the Recorder (the first instance Judge) in the Stannard case, in order that liability may be established:
- The defendant must bring onto his land something that is dangerous
- The danger must escape from the defendant’s land to the claimant’s land
- The use to which the defendant had put his land must be 'non-natural'
The facts of the Stannard case are straight forward. The defendant (Mr Stannard trading as Wyvern Tyres) supplied and fitted car and van tyres. At his premises were approximately 3,000 tyres, some of which were said to be "piled high in 'chimneys'". A fire broke out which on the evidence of a fire officer was caused by an electrical fault within Mr Stannard’s premises. The fire officer was also of the view that tyres do not easily alight, but once they do they are very difficult to put out. The fire spread to Mr Gore’s neighbouring property which was totally destroyed.
Mr Gore brought an action claiming that Mr Stannard had acted negligently and/or had strict liability under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher. At first instance the claim in negligence was rejected as the cause of the accident (faulty wiring) was purely accidental and not attributable to any failing by the defendant. However the Recorder was persuaded that the rule in Rylands v Fletcher applied in that the volume and method of storage of the tyres was "dangerous" and that the use of the land was "non-natural".
Stannard appealed the decision. The decision of the Court of Appeal (at 40 odd pages) contains a comprehensive review of the case law concerning the application of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher generally and to fire cases specifically. In the context of the (simplified 3-stage) "test" described above, the Court held that:
- The thing that Mr Stannard brought onto his land were tyres
- Tyres themselves are not inherently dangerous
- The thing that escaped was not the tyres, but fire
As a consequence the rule in Rylands v Fletcher did not apply and absent a claim in negligence Mr Gore did not have a claim against Mr Stannard.
This judgment will have significant ramifications for fire claims in general in that for a claim to succeed negligence must be proven. In the words of Lord Justice Ward – the moral of this story is to "make sure you have insurance cover for losses occasioned by fire on your premises".