Coastal authority's property cliffhanger

Roger Pearson reports on the imminent Appeal Court hearing into responsibility for property damage caused by cliff erosion

A disaster in which a four-star Scarborough hotel built in 1888 crumbled into the sea after the cliffs in front of it collapsed is to be debated in the Court of Appeal.

The liability of coastal authorities to protect properties on cliff tops from damage resulting from erosion will be probed and will go to a full appeal hearing.

Scarborough Borough Council has won the right to challenge an official referee's decision last year in which it was held liable for the Holbeck Hall Hotel disaster.

Lords Justices Kennedy and Morritt have granted the council leave for a full appeal against last October's decision that it was under a legal duty to take steps to prevent the landslide which resulted in partial collapse and eventual demolition of the hotel.

The council did not need the leave of the court to challenge the decision on points of law alone, but it needed the leave now granted to it in order to continue its claims that the judge was factually wrong in his findings.

The council was sued by the owners of the hotel on the basis that it was responsible for the land between the hotel and the cliff's edge – and had a legal duty to make it safe.

Since 1893 there had been a number of land slips and collapses which had eaten away at the lawns of the hotel. The court was told that cliffs were inherently unstable. Remedial work was carried out on the coastline, but ultimately it failed to save the hotel.

Finally, on 3 June 1993 there was a major slip followed by further slips which forced the hotel owners to evacuate the premises. Eventually the main hotel collapsed and the rest had to be demolished.

The official referee who found Scarborough liable ruled that it was under a duty to reduce any hazard to the hotel owners which it was aware of. He took the view that the council knew of the dangers but failed to take action.

Granting leave for an appeal, Lord Justice Morritt said he considered the council had an arguable case and that the contentions put forward by the council had "reasonable prospects of success".