When firefighters get their fingers burnt

Hampshire council faces a huge bill for compensation after its fire brigade made mistakes in tackling an industrial blaze. Paul Gosling reports on the implications for local government

The emergency services and other public bodies face a spate of negligence claims following a precedent-setting High Court judgment last month. Hampshire County Council may have to pay pounds 17m compensation arising from failings in the way its fire brigade tackled a huge blaze at the Basingstoke offices of the Digital Equipment Company.

Unless the decision is overturned on appeal, Hampshire council will have to find the money out of its running costs. Although the authority self- insures, it has not built up separate insurance reserves.

Hampshire council's liability arose from the mistaken decision of fire officers to switch off the factory's sprinkler system, believing it was hampering their efforts to reach and fight the fire. The court accepted that had the sprinklers been left on, damage would have been much less severe. It was, said Mr Justice Havery, "a bad blunder".

Lawyers acting for the building's owner, Capital & Counties, also successfully argued that the fire brigade was in breach of its duties to inspect buildings properly, and consequently was unaware that there were voids in the roof space that allowed the fire to spread quickly. This is of great potential significance, as many fire brigades have reduced their fire prevention work in response to budget cuts.

The other joint defendants had settled earlier in the case's progress, accepting that the fire had been caused by the mistake of an employee, had been possible because of a defective electrical connector and had spread as a result of a design failing.

Hampshire council had unsuccessfully argued that public bodies did not owe a duty of care. This view was rejected by the courts. "Courts are not very keen on the idea of putting public bodies on a pedestal, and saying that whatever they do, they are immune to action," said Geoff Smyth of the solicitors Cameron Markby Hewitt, which acted for Capital & Counties.

"Fire brigades do a splendid job, but if emergency services make mistakes, they can't expect to be in a different position from the man in the street," Mr Smyth added. "Another point was that the fire brigade was not very disposed to take advice from people available, such as the employees of Digital Equipment, who could have told them about the sprinklers in the roof. Instead, the fire brigade rushed in."

The court's decision has been received badly by Hampshire council. The authority's chief executive, Peter Robinson, said: "We are extremely concerned at the implications of the judgment in this case, both in relation to the county council in particular and the standard of care in general which has now been placed on fire and rescue standards up and down the land.

"When emergency services respond to incidents and take decisions literally in the heat of the moment, in good faith, for which they are held to account years later following a legal analysis in the cold light of dawn, it is a significant issue of general public policy," Mr Robinson said.

"It must be borne in mind that this judgment could create a situation where emergency services could be better off not acting at all because failure to act cannot lead to a liability," he added.

However, the extraordinary concept of fire brigades refusing to respond to call-outs in fear of creating a negligence liability was dismissed by Mr Smyth, who argues that fire brigades do have a duty of care to answer emergency calls.

The case will be of particular interest to those councils that, like Hampshire, have dispensed with insurance policies and decided to self- insure. It has been common for organisations that self-insure to place large sums aside as additional reserves, to meet extraordinary liabilities that would otherwise have been met by an external insurer.

But Hampshire failed to build up dedicated self-insurance reserves because of the pressure on its budgets from council tax-capping, limitations in government grant and increased responsibilities. Consequently, the council will have to meet its compensation liabilities by making cuts from its running costs, or by reducing its capital programme.

Lawyers are predicting that the Digital case will persuade local authorities to cease the practice of self-insurance and to take out conventional policies, despite the fact that annual premiums run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. In practice, the break-up of many county councils and their replacement by smaller unitary bodies may already mean that self-insurance has ceased to be a viable option, with smaller councils unable to meet the cost of extraordinary liabilities.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
New Articles
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all