UK: An Update On The Wyvern Tyres Case

Last Updated: 25 October 2012
Article by Mark Wing and Ben Crook

As property and liability insurers are all too familiar; fire often spreads onto neighbouring land. The judgments of the Court of Appeal in the recent "Wyvern Tyres" case of Stannard v Gore [2012] consider the ways in which a person can be held liable for damage caused in this way.

For those short of time, the points to remember from this update are that:

  • The basic rule from Rylands v Fletcher is that the defendant must have put his land to a "non-natural" use, brought a dangerous thing onto his land and that the dangerous thing must have escaped onto the neighbour's land causing damage
  • The Wyvern Tyres case confirms that damage caused by fire spreading from an adjoining property can fall within the strict liability rule of Rylands v Fletcher and suggests that such a case is likely to be rare
  • In some circumstances an occupier of land can be held liable for the negligence of persons lawfully on its land (e.g. an independent contractor)

The facts of Wyvern Tyres

The Defendant operated Wyvern Tyres, a tyre-fitting business, from premises on an industrial estate. As many as 3,000 tyres were stored there. A significant number were kept in a disorderly, haphazard way.

One night a fire broke out on the Wyvern Tyres premises. The fire was probably started accidentally by the electrical wiring on the Defendant's property. The tyres provided the fuel for the fire to spread to the neighbouring land.

The trial judgment

The Claimant sued the Defendant alleging both negligence and strict liability for the damage caused by the fire, relying for the latter on the rule in Rylands.

The claim in negligence was rejected. The Recorder found no evidence that the Defendant had been negligent. Wyvern's electrical wiring was regularly checked and maintained to a reasonable standard. While the Recorder found the Defendant stored its tyres in a disorderly fashion this was not negligent.

The claim for strict liability was successful. In the Recorder's judgment the Defendant's haphazard storing of a large number of tyres was dangerous within the meaning of the rule in Rylands. Secondly he held "there was plainly an escape within the meaning of the Rylands v Fletcher rule" since the Defendant had brought the tyres onto his land, they had ignited and enabled the fire to spread to the Claimant's land. Thirdly he held the Defendant's use of the land was "non-natural" as the Defendant's tyre storage was out of the ordinary, not normal and not routine.

The Appeal

The Defendant appealed the decision on strict liability. The Court of Appeal upheld the Defendant's appeal; it overturned the trial judgment and dismissed the Claimant's claim for strict liability.

The Court of Appeal judges held that:

  1. The "thing" brought onto the Defendant's premises was a large stock of tyres
  2. Tyres are not exceptionally dangerous or mischievous items
  3. The tyres did not escape. What escaped was the fire, the ferocity of which was stoked by the tyres burning on the Defendant's premises
  4. In any event, keeping a stock of tyres on the premises of a tyre-fitting business, even a very large stock, was not an extraordinary or unusual use of the land


The appeal judgments are noteworthy for their review of the law in England and Wales for liability for spread of fire and for reconfirming that, in appropriate cases, there can be a finding of strict liability for escape of fire under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher. The judgments helpfully set out 8 key tests:

  1. The defendant must be the owner or occupier of the land
  2. He must bring or collect an exceptionally dangerous or mischievous thing on his land
  3. He must have recognised or ought to have recognised, judged by the standards appropriate at the relevant place and time, that there is an exceptionally high risk of danger or mischief if that thing should escape, however unlikely an escape may have been thought to be
  4. His use of his land must, having regard to all the circumstances of time and place, be extraordinary and unusual
  5. The thing must escape from his property into or onto the property of another
  6. The escape must cause damage of the relevant kind to the rights and enjoyment of the claimant's land
  7. Damages for death or personal injury are not recoverable
  8. It is not necessary to establish the defendant's negligence but an Act of God or the act of a stranger will provide a defence

Given the above, it is to be remembered that while a fire case under the rule in Rylands is likely to be rare, it is still possible. For such a case, the following factors must also be taken into account:

  1. The "thing" which had been brought onto the land must escape, not the fire which was started or increased by the "thing"
  2. While fire may be a dangerous thing, the occasions when fire as such is brought onto the land may be limited to cases where the fire has been deliberately or negligently started by the occupier or one for whom he is responsible
  3. In any event starting a fire on one's own land may well be an ordinary use of the land

Businesses which are inherently more likely to give rise to fire claims relying on the rule in Rylands are those where fire is maintained on the land for a use that is extraordinary and unusual (for example, manufacturing or production enterprises using fire that are operating in an inappropriate location).

On a separate note but also set out in the appeal judgments, liability for escape and spread of fire remains with the occupier of land (per the line of authorities including H&N Emanuel [1971] and Balfour v Barty King [1956]) where the escape and spread was in fact negligently caused by an independent contractor. That is an unusual, but not unique, position under English law and arises out of the historic development of liability for fire.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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