Courts send mixed message to fire brigades on liability

Local authorities responsible for fire fighting operations could face legal challenges from disgruntled property owners and higher insurance premiums following a ground-breaking Court of Appeal decision.

In a series of three cases the Appeal Court ruled that fire brigades could be held liable for negligence.

But in a bizarre twist, under the court’s rulings, fire fighters who refuse to attend a fire will continue to have legal protection under common law.

In two cases involving West Yorkshire Fire and Civil Defence Authority and the London Fire Brigade, the Appeal Court ruled that there was no duty for a fire brigade to find fire hydrants and ensure there was an adequate supply of water. It was also judged that they were not responsible for checking an adjoining building to see if the fire had spread.

However in the third case – Digital Equipment & ors v Hampshire County Council & ors – the fire brigade was found liable for extensive damage after it decided to turn off the sprinkler system in the hope of protecting electronic equipment.

Davies Arnold Cooper partner John Smith, who successfully defended West Yorkshire Fire and Civil Defence Authority, said the Hampshire decision had removed the assumption that, like the police, fire brigades were immune from liability.

This meant that councils which used outside insurers could face steeper premiums, although Smith warned it would remain difficult to successfully sue a fire brigade.

He said: “My view is that the fire authority has got to do something pretty extreme to increase the risk of a fire.”

Smith suggested that council legal staff may need to improve internal guidelines but added that these could be difficult to comply with in the heat of the moment.

“Fire fighters could be given instructions but do you have your guidelines and read through them when you fight a fire?” he said.

“You are saying to firemen that, not only do you have to fight this fire, you have got to make sure you don’t make any mistakes.”

See Recent Decisions, page 13