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Strict liability: tyres burn and mice roar

Strict liability has popped up again in the legal news. I recently wrote about the announcements regarding strict liability with regard to health and safety.  Stannard v Gore is a recently reported case about strict liability where there has been damage to land and property.

The claim in Stannard v Gore was about a faulty wire at a tyre installation business which set fire to about 3000 tyres.  The resulting fire spread to the business’ neighbour, who sued on the basis of negligence and/or strict liability.  The Court of Appeal decided that the tyre place was not liable for the damage that had been caused to their neighbour.

This type of strict liability is often catchily referred to as ‘Rylands nuisance’, as it was based on the case of Rylands v Fletcher (1868).

In Rylands v Fletcher a water reservoir burst and flooded a neighbour’s mine causing all sorts of damage.  There was no negligence in the reservoir breaking, it just happened.  However, through some nifty legal arguing, the courts came up with ‘Rylands nuisance’.

In essence, if you bring stuff onto your land that is inherently dangerous and it escapes to cause damage to someone else, you will be liable for the damage it causes.

There have been a host of difficulties with this simple principle.  For example, what happens if the other person sees the danger coming but does nothing about it, are you still liable? Or what about if the dangerous thing you are building has been authorised and provided for by legislation – if you act in accordance with ‘the law’ can you be found liable?  (Short answer – no.)

The result has been that, like many great Victorian cases, the principle has creakily held up over the decades and can be extremely useful for claimants.  However, as Lord Hoffmann put it in Transco v Stockport MBC, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the intellectual effort devoted to the rule by judges and writers over many years has brought forth a mouse.”

Lord Hoffmann said this in 2003 after pointing out that there have been no reported cases since the second world war.  Well, now we have a second.

The argument this time is that the tyre business did not bring inherently dangerous items onto its property.  It brought tyres.   Furthermore, the tyres did not escape from the property, the fire did.  As a consequence, strict liability cannot be established and, in the absence of any direct negligence, the tyre company is not liable.

In some respects this is all academic – both sides will be insured and it will be a question of which insurer ultimately foots the bill (as Lord Hoffmann again points out in Transco at paragraph 39).

However, any case that provides direction for insurers can only be a good thing.  And I still like the idea that, even if it has ended up being only a mouse, the Rylands nuisance mouse will be able to roar again.

Mark Baldwin