In the case of Iliffe v Feltham Construction Limited, the facts were that the Claimants' large wooden new-build house on an island in Poole harbour was completely destroyed by a fire. The Claimants blamed the contractor, in particular for issues relating to the installation of the chimney to a log burning stove, which appeared to the Claimant to be the only likely culprit. The Claimant's claimed a not inconsiderable sum somewhere north of £3.5m. Despite this, the Claimant decided to apply for summary judgment - a very much truncated version of court proceedings which is typically used for much smaller matters.
Summary judgment is available to a claimant where the Defendant has no real prospect of successfully defending the claim. In effect, why trouble the parties with the time and cost of a full trial procedure when the outcome is almost inevitable? To succeed, there should be no other compelling reason why the case should be disposed of at trial, such as issues of public policy.
The Claimants seized upon documentation in an earlier adjudication between the parties to form the basis of its summary judgment application and the court understood why. The documentation seemed to suggest that the contractor would struggle to deny the core allegations. The court has to be very careful in such applications, because the Defendant risks losing the opportunity to defend itself in the usual way. Indeed, a claimant can apply for summary judgment before a Defence has even been filed.
In this case the questions boiled down to: 1) did defective installation of the woodburner or flue cause the fire; and 2) was the Defendant contractually liable in respect of the fire.
The judge was of the view that there was no realistic prospect that evidence could be adduced to show that the fire started close to the flue from the logburner. In fact the judge said he could form that view from photographs alone and didn't even need to consider what the experts thought. He also concluded that the evidence on defective installation of the flue was overwhelming. One rather unusual factor in the Claimant's favour was that any external source of the fire could be ruled out because the Claimants' housekeeper kept a record of all fires started on the island! The requisite elements of contractual liability were also found and summary judgment was awarded, leaving only damages to be assessed. Not bad progress for a claim only commenced less than five months earlier...