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Fire Liability Cases

I set out below some cases where liability has been found for those injured as a result of a fire.

In the first case of Ribeev Norrie in the year 2000 the Court decided a case where Mrs Ribeev who had lived in a terraced house in Hull for over 70 years awoke in 1996 with smoke in her property. As she was leaving the property she fell down the stairs. She was unable to see the bannister due to the smoke. Fortunately firemen managed to remove her from the scene but she was injured. At the time of the incident there were two occupants in the adjoining property both of whom were there with the permission of the Defendant. Mrs Ribeev brought her claim against the Defendant alleging that he was responsible for the actions of the two occupiers who had failed to extinguish a cigarette and failed to take any proper steps to control the fire.

The Court of Appeal found the Judge was perfectly entitled to decide that a breach of duty by the Defendant to comply with the Local Authority requirements for fitting fire alarms was not causative of the damage and personal injury suffered by the Claimant. They agreed it was a matter of speculation as to whether the fire and the smoke damage would have been controlled earlier if a fire detection system had been in operation.

However they have no doubt that the Defendant was the occupier of the room set aside for communal use of the tenants or occupiers of the separate bedrooms with the building and he retained exclusive possession of the common parts and exercised his right to enter upon them. There was no question of the individual tenant having exclusive possession of the common parts and exercised his right to enter upon them. It was held the Defendant could have laid down rules preventing smoking and had full power to regulate how the part of the building was to be used or not used. The Defendant could reasonably have anticipated that his tenants or his licensees or their guests in the building would smoke in the common parts. He could also have anticipated that cigarettes would not always be extinguished, and that they could be left to smoulder and cause fire.

The Court of Appeal decided that the proper question was not what actual control the Defendant landlord did or did not exercise, but what power of control he had. He could have regulated smoking in the premises as he thought fit to ensure that they were safely used. He could have placed prominent notices in the building or controlled smoking by terms of the licence. In those circumstances if a fire broke out notwithstanding that warning, then it could have been open to him to control (and the burden of proof would be on him to show) that the fire lighting activity was alien to his invitation.

As an alternative he could have minimized the possibility of danger by living in the premises himself or by appointing a living in manager. The Defendant was the occupier of the premises. Those who started the fire were not strangers to him. He was accordingly responsible for the fire and damage caused to the Claimant and her property.

Matthew Winder is a Senior Litigator member of APIL and is based at our Lancaster, Kendal and Barrow offices.

Dated 21st April 2015


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