An owner is unlikely to be liable for accidental fire damage to adjoining property.
Stannard v Gore [4 October 2012] considered the issue of whether a landowner could be held responsible for fire damage to adjoining property where the fire originated on his land, but where he was not negligent. This involved analysis of the famous legal rule in “Rylands v Fletcher”.
To be liable under “Rylands”, a landowner must bring or keep an exceptionally dangerous and non-natural thing on his land and he ought reasonably to have recognised that there was an exceptionally high risk of danger if that thing should escape. His use of the land must be extraordinary and unusual and the thing must escape from his property onto another property and cause damage to that property. It is not necessary to establish the owner’s negligence, but an act of a stranger, for example, will provide a defence. Damages for death or injury are not recoverable.
The question for the court was whether “Rylands” applies where the damage to a neighbour’s property was caused by the “escape” of a fire which started on the owner’s property.
Mr Stannard carried on the business of a motor vehicle tyre supplier at his property and Mr Gore was his neighbour. Some 3,000 tyres were stored at Stannard’s property and tyres were piled high vertically in “chimneys” and some were located along the wall dividing his property from Gore’s property. While the tyres were not in themselves flammable, if they catch fire, it is difficult to put out.
A fire broke out at Stannard’s property and its ferocity was fed by the ignition of a large stack of tyres. Such was its severity that ten pumping fire appliances attended. The fire spread to Gore’s property and both properties were totally destroyed.
At first instance, the court was satisfied that the fire originated in a wiring issue at Stannard’s property and spread onto Gore’s property. The court, however, decided that Stannard had not been negligent. There was nothing to show that Stannard had failed to keep in good order the electrical system at his property, as opposed to something that might have arisen entirely by accident. Since Gore could not prove Stannard was negligent, Stannard would have the benefit of 6681816-1 2 a defence under section 86 of the Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act 1774 on the basis the fire was accidental, unless Gore could show Stannard had a “Rylands” liability.
The court concluded that there was an escape within the Rylands rule and liability turned on whether Stannard’s activities were dangerous and a non-natural use of his land. The court decided that the activities were out of the ordinary, since a large number of tyres were stored in a haphazard way, which was not the normal way a tyre business would store tyres. There was, therefore, a non-natural use and the requirements of the Rylands rule were established and Stannard was found liable.
Stannard appealed, arguing that the court had erred in applying “Rylands” to fire cases. The Court of Appeal overturned the court’s decision and found in Stannard’s favour. While two of the judges stated that “Rylands” can apply to cases of the escape of fire, this will be rare since, for it to apply, it is the thing that had been brought onto the land that must escape, not the fire started or increased by the thing. In this case, the tyres did not escape, what escaped was the fire, stoked by the tyres burning at Stannard’s property. Liability under “Rylands” was, therefore, not established.
Another judge considered that “Rylands” did not apply and instead described the test as an owner will not be liable to his neighbour for a fire that begins accidentally, unless he was negligent in failing to prevent its spread.
Perhaps, in practice, the moral of the story is to ensure there is insurance for losses occasioned by fire at your premises.