LAW REPORT: No duty owed to owner by attending and fighting fire

Digital Equipment and others v Hampshire County Council and others: Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, Lord Justice Potter, Lord Justice Judge) 14 March 1997

A fire brigade was not, by merely attending at and fighting a fire, under a duty of care to the owners of premises damaged or destroyed by the fire, although it would be liable where a danger created by its negligence caused extra damage, unless it could show that the extra damage would have occurred in any event.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeals, which had been consolidated because they raised similar points of law.

In the Hampshire case, the fire brigade had turned off the sprinkler system at premises which were on fire, as a result of which the fire had spread causing the total loss of the building. The fire brigade was found liable for the extra damage so caused. In the London case, damage had been caused to premises which the fire brigade had failed to inspect after extinguishing a fire on adjoining wasteland. The West Yorkshire case concerned a fire at a chapel which could not be contained because of the absence of a proper water supply. In those two cases the fire brigade was held not to be liable.

James Munby QC and Edward Faulks QC (Council Solicitor) for Hampshire; Ronald Walker QC and Toby Hooper (Hextall Erskine & Co) for John Munroe; Anthony Boswood QC and Bruce Speller (Devonshires) for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Jonathan Sumption QC and Nigel Tozzi (Barlow Lyde & Gilbert) for Digital; John Slater QC, Simon Brown QC and Alexander Antelme (Cameron Markby Hewitt) for Capital; Michael De Navarro QC and Graham Eklund (Legal Branch, LFCD) for London Fire and Civil Defence; Colin MacKay QC and Jonathan Bellamy (Davies Arnold Cooper) for West Yorkshire Fire and Civil Defence.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith said that there was no reported case in this country on the question whether, once they had started to fight a fire, a fire brigade owed a duty of care to the owner of the property on fire, or to anyone else to whose property the fire might spread.

In the Hampshire case the judge had found for the property owners on the basis that a duty of care existed where there had been a direct infliction of foreseeable physical damage. There was no doubt that where a rescue service, by its negligence, created the danger which caused a plaintiff's injury, the plaintiff could recover unless the rescue service could show that the extra damage would have occurred in any event.

It had been submitted for all the owners that there was sufficient proximity between the parties to establish a duty of care, on the basis of assumption of responsibility by the fire brigade and particular reliance by the owner. A fire brigade did not, however, enter into a relationship of sufficient proximity with the owner or occupier of premises to create a duty of care merely by attending at and fighting a fire.

It was perhaps unnecessary, therefore, in the London and West Yorkshire cases, to consider whether as a matter of policy it was just, fair and reasonable that a duty of care should exist. The question was, however, closely related to that of proximity.

There was no ground in a case such as the Hampshire case, where the fire brigade had created or increased the danger by turning off the sprinklers, for giving immunity.

Had a sufficient relationship of proximity existed in the London and West Yorkshire cases, the argument that it would not have been just, fair and reasonable to impose a duty of care would not have been convincing. The principles underlying the cases where immunity had been granted could not be sufficiently identified in the case of fire brigades.

It was not possible either to argue for the existence of statutory immunity: section 30 of the Fire Services Act 1947 was not apt to establish an implied immunity from proceedings in negligence, whether brought by the owners of damaged property, other firemen working at the scene, or persons who had suffered personal injury.

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