Total liable for Buncefield fire, court rules

The question of liability for the Buncefield oil fire was decided at the High Court today.

Mr Justice David Steel's ruling in London was that Total should pay the property damage bills of individual and business claimants - the vast majority of whom were insured.

The December 2005 explosion was the result of an overspillage of 300 tonnes of petrol from the top of one of the storage tanks at the Hertfordshire depot,

It formed a huge vapour cloud which ignited, causing widespread damage and injuring 43 people.

Widely thought to be the largest ever in peacetime Europe, the explosion measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard 125 miles away.

The claims arising from the incident totalled more than £750m, said the judge.

The action was bought against Total and a joint venture company established between Total as to 60 per cent and Chevron with 40 per cent called Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd (HOSL) - the explosion happened in a part of the Buncefield site developed by the joint venture.

Total claimed that Chevron should share responsibility for the incident as HOSL was liable, but Chevron said Total was liable.

The case revolved on identifying whether it was Total or HOSL which had the right to control the manner in which the supervisors at the site undertook their work, and was dependent on how the site was operated and managed.

The judge found that all those working on the Buncefield site had employment contracts with Total.

The most senior on-site employee was the terminal manager and any instruction to the supervisors had to be channelled through him - he had been appointed as manager by Total and retained his reporting line to the terminal operations manager at Total's head office with whom he was in regular contact.

All instructions relating to the safe operation of the Buncefield site were promulgated by Total in accord with standards adopted by Total for all terminals which it operated, and Total perceived these to include Buncefield.

In contrast, said the judge, although HOSL was the nominated operator of the Buncefield site in some of the agreements between Total and Chevron, it had no employees and its board met for two hours every six months primarily to receive a report from the terminal manager and to discuss budgetary matters - it was incapable of being concerned with day to day operations.

The judge concluded that Total had failed to discharge the burden of establishing that HOSL was responsible for the negligence of the supervisor.

He also found that that there was a further contributory fault consequent on the failure of Total's head office staff to promulgate an adequate system for preventing the overfilling of a tank.

This reflected the absence of any written tank-filling procedures for use in the control room even following a "near miss" in August 2003.

In the result, said the judge, there was a lack of careful monitoring of filling operations and an improper reliance on alarms.

The judge said that the question of costs and whether leave to appeal should be granted to any party, and on what issue, would be deferred to a two-day hearing in April.

After his ruling, Total said in a statement: "We greatly regret that the Buncefield incident occurred.

"We would stress that Total has never sought to avoid its responsibilities as a partner in the joint venture at Buncefield.

"We will continue to make every effort to ensure that significant progress is made to settle outstanding claims and find practical ways to support the local community.

"Following the incident, Total continues to work with the regulators, the Major Incident Investigation Board and the oil industry to develop and improve safety in all areas of our business."

It added: "We still believe, however, our joint venture partner should accept their share of the responsibilities for the incident.

"As a consequence we will be considering our grounds for appeal - the specific points of which it would be premature for us to comment on at this time.

"We would like to stress that any appeal will have no implications for claimants, whose claims will continue to be processed."

Total emphasised that the majority of claimants had had their claims settled by their insurance companies, and that HOSL agreed to settle all personal injury claims in 2006.

Those people seeking payment for uninsured losses were being dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and HOSL had settled almost 70 per cent of the 3,545 claims received.

Collins Solicitors of Watford, which represents a large number of local residents affected by the explosion, said that they welcomed the judgment.

A spokesman said: "This has been a long and arduous process for them. Through no fault of their own they have been caught up in this protracted litigation which has caused untold stress and further disruption to their lives."

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