Fire brigade liable for damage

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The Independent Online
Hampshire County Council was today facing a compensation bill of up to pounds 12m after a judge held the county's fire brigade liable for the partial destruction in a blaze of a prestige company headquarters in Basingstoke.

It is believed to be only the second judgment ever obtained against a fire service in the United Kingdom for alleged negligence in the course of its work. The council is expected to appeal.

The fire broke out in the roof of the state-of-the-art headquarters in Basingstoke of Digital Equipment Ltd, known as The Crescent, in March 1990. The owners, Capital & Counties plc, had fitted an automatic sprinkler system which, it was claimed, would have limited the damage to a small area of the roof void if it had not been turned off by the fire brigade.

The allegation was that the firefighters stopped the system while the fire was still blazing in the erroneous belief that there were no sprinklers in the roof void; that the firefighting was somehow being hampered by sprinklers at first-floor ceiling level; and that these could not be isolated and turned off without shutting down the entire system.

Judge Richard Havery QC, sitting as a High Court Official Referee, held there was no justification for the fire officer in charge to depart from the principle that sprinklers should be kept running until a fire was completely under control. He said the decision was "a bad blunder".

The judge rejected an argument by the fire brigade that it owed no legal duty to the owners of the building and, like the police, was immune from being sued as a matter of public policy.

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