Job Edwards Ltd v Birmingham Navigations Proprietors: CA 1924

Land next to the canal was used for the deposit of refuse by trespassers. The mound spread until, for a fee, it was dumped also across the canal. It caught fire, and the fire spread toward the canal. By agreement the parties got together to put out the fire, and now sought to allocate the costs. Mr Vachell QC, for the canal company argued that: ‘No doubt a person on whose estate any fire shall accidentally begin is exempted from liability by s. 86 of the Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act, 1774, for damage caused by that fire; and it may be admitted that a fire accidentally began upon land belonging to the respondents. But the fire which caused or threatened to cause damage to the appellants’ property was not the fire which accidentally began on the respondents’ land, when it might have been extinguished quickly and easily, but the fire which was from May to October, 1920, allowed to increase and become formidable: Musgrove v. Pandelis.’
Held: The mine-owners were not liable to the canal owners. There was no public nuisance, and no evidence that they had either caused or contributed to the fire. Scrutton LJ dissenting, said that that there was no justification for the distinction between public and private nuisance.
Bankes LJ considered the distinction between a public nuisance (which he said a land owner had a duty to abate) and a private nuisance (which he said gave rise to no such duty). As to the custom relating to fire: ‘The case of fire has always been looked upon in our law as a somewhat exceptional case. It was no doubt the ancient law or custom of England that a person in whose house a fire originated which afterwards spread to his neighbour’s property and destroyed it must make good the loss, but I do not consider that rule as opposed to the view I am putting forward in regard to liability for injury done by a private nuisance, as the ancient law no doubt considered a fire as a public nuisance owing to the danger of its spreading. The view of the law which I am taking does not touch a case where the private nuisance has been caused, or allowed to continue, by any act or default on the part of the occupier of the land on which it exists.’
As to the defence under section 86. As to that he said: ‘Mr Vachell contended that whatever may have been the cause of the original fire it ceased to be an accidental fire within the meaning of the statute when the plaintiffs were informed of it, and that within the reasoning of the decision in Musgrove v Pandelis the fire as from that date must be treated as a second and independent fire. I cannot draw any such inference from the facts of the present case. In Musgrove v Pandelis Lush J drew from the facts the inference that there were in substance either two fires, the first an accidental one which did no damage, and the second which was due to negligence and did the damage; or alternatively that there was only one fire within the meaning of the statute, and that was the one due to negligence. This Court agreed with the view of the learned judge, but the facts of that case are very special, and have in my opinion no bearing upon the case we are now dealing with.’
Scrutton LJ dissented. He discussed the duty at common law: ‘There is a great deal to be said for the view that if a man finds a dangerous and artificial thing on his land, which he and those for whom he is responsible did not put there; if he knows that if left alone it will damage other persons; if by reasonable care he can render it harmless, as if by stamping on a fire just beginning from a trespasser’s match he can extinguish it; that then if he does nothing, he has ‘permitted it to continue,’ and become responsible for it. This would base the liability on negligence, and not on the duty of insuring damage from a dangerous thing under Rylands v Fletcher. I appreciate that to get negligence you must have a duty to be careful, but I think on principle that a landowner has a duty to take reasonable care not to allow his land to remain a receptacle for a thing which may, if not rendered harmless, cause damage to his neighbours.’
As to section 86, he said: ‘That statute (14 Geo. 3, c. 78, s. 86) provides that no action shall lie against any person in whose house or on whose estate ‘any fire shall accidentally begin.’ This fire undoubtedly began accidentally so far as the landowner and his agents were concerned. It has been decided that the statutory restriction of the previous common law liability does not exclude liability for fires caused by negligence of the owner or persons for whom he is responsible, or by dangerous things for which the owner is responsible under the doctrine of Rylands v Fletcher. This leaves the difficult question – suppose the fire is caused by a trespasser, as if he throws down a match; and suppose the owner comes by immediately afterwards, sees the small fire, and could with no trouble extinguish it by stamping on it, but does not do so, so that the fire spreads and damages his neighbour, is he freed by the statute? He is then aware of a dangerous thing on his land which may damage his neighbour, and which by reasonable care he can prevent from damaging his neighbour, and he does nothing. I agree he is not an absolute insurer of that dangerous thing, for he did not himself create it, but I think on principle he is bound to take reasonable care of a dangerous thing which he knows to exist. Take the case of an ordinary house fire, where a coal leaps from the grate. If no one knows of the fire caused by the coal till it cannot be stopped, that fire may be within the protection of the statute, though Duke LJ doubted it in Musgrove v Pandelis. But suppose the owner sees it jump out, could extinguish it with a moment’s trouble, and does not trouble to do so, could he plead the statute to protect him? In Musgrove v Pandelis, where the real danger arose from the fact that the defendant’s servant negligently did not turn a tap to stop a supply of petrol to a fire, the Court treated the fire as two fires; I should respectfully have thought that it was safer to say that the fire was continued by negligence, and that the cause of action was not for a fire accidentally begun, but for negligence in increasing such a fire.’


Bankes LJ, Astbury J, Scrutton LJ


[1924] 1 KB 341, [1924] 93 LJKB 261, [1924] 68 Sol Jo 501


Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act 1774 86


England and Wales


Appeal fromJob Edwards Ltd v Birmingham Navigations Proprietors 1923
Rubbish was tipped on land belonging to a canal company and on adjoining land belonging to mine owners. The rubbish on the mine owners’ land was found to be on fire, and the canal company feared that the fire might spread to their own land. Having . .
CitedMusgrove v Pandelis CA 2-Jan-1919
The plaintiff ((M) rented first floor rooms above the defendant’s garage. The defendant’s employee spilt petrol which was lit, and negligently failed to control it causing a fire, damaging the plaintiff’s rooms.
Held: The Act did not provide a . .

Cited by:

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Rylands does not apply to Statutory Works
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Held: The rule in Rylands v Fletcher . .
Dissenting judgment ApprovedSedleigh-Denfield v O’Callaghan HL 24-Jun-1940
Occupier Responsible for Nuisance in adopting it
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CitedLeakey v The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty CA 31-Jul-1979
Natural causes were responsible for soil collapsing onto neighbouring houses in Bridgwater.
Held: An occupier of land owes a general duty of care to a neighbouring occupier in relation to a hazard occurring on his land, whether such hazard is . .
CitedStannard (T/A Wyvern Tyres) v Gore CA 4-Oct-2012
The defendant, now appellant, ran a business involving the storage of tyres. The claimant neighbour’s own business next door was severely damaged in a fire of the tyres escaping onto his property. The court had found him liable in strict liability . .
CitedStannard (T/A Wyvern Tyres) v Gore CA 4-Oct-2012
The defendant, now appellant, ran a business involving the storage of tyres. The claimant neighbour’s own business next door was severely damaged in a fire of the tyres escaping onto his property. The court had found him liable in strict liability . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Updated: 31 July 2022; Ref: scu.188041