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Neighbour not liable under rule in Rylands v Fletcher for damage caused by accidental fire

In early October 2012, the Court of Appeal gave welcome guidance on the application of an old rule known as Rylands v Fletcher (named after the case that established it in 1868) to damage caused by fire. The rule provides 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.

Mr Stannard ran a business supplying vehicle tyres and stored around 3,000 on his land. An electrical fire broke out after Mr Stannard had closed shop for the day which ignited the tyres. The fire spread to the neighbouring properties, completely destroying Mr Gore’s premises next door. Mr Gore issued court proceedings for damages.

In 2003, the House of Lords had set out a number of principles for the modern application of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.  These were:

  1. The defendant had to be the owner or occupier of land.
  2.  He had to bring, keep or collect an exceptionally dangerous or mischievous thing onto his land.
  3.  He had to have recognised, or ought reasonably to have recognised, that there was an exceptionally high risk of danger or mischief if that thing should escape.
  4.  His use of the land had to be extraordinary and unusual.
  5.  The thing had to escape from his property onto the property of another.

The question for the court was whether these principles would catch Mr Stannard.

The county court found that the fire had been started accidently, providing Mr Stannard with a defence to the negligence claim under the Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act 1774. However, it ruled that Mr Stannard was liable under the rule because the tyres were stored in a haphazard and dangerous manner and their storage was a non-natural use of the land which increased the severity of the fire.

The case went to appeal and the Court of Appeal disagreed. Cases of fire damage are extremely difficult to bring within the rule for several reasons, including the fact that the tyres were the “thing” which Mr Stannard had brought onto his land which had to escape. What had escaped in this case was the fire, not the tyres. The Court of Appeal also disagreed that keeping tyres on the premises of a tyre-fitting business was an extraordinary or unusual use of the land.

This is a welcome and sensible clarification of the application of the rule.