Margaret Kathleen Ribee v Michael W. Norrie

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtCourt of Appeal (Civil Division)
Judgment Date02 November 2000
Judgment citation (vLex)[2000] EWCA Civ J1102-11
Docket NumberCase No: CCRTF 00/0264/B2
Date02 November 2000

[2000] EWCA Civ J1102-11






Lord Justice Ward and

Mr Justice Evans-Lombe

Case No: CCRTF 00/0264/B2

Margaret Kathleen Ribee
Michael W. Norrie

Mr J.M. Collins (instructed by Graham and Rosen for the Appellant)

Mr T. Hartley (instructed by Frank Allen Pennington for the Defendant)


On 5th January 2000, His Hon. Judge Cracknell sitting in the Kingston-upon-Hull County Court dismissed a claim brought by Miss Margaret Ribee for the damage and personal injury she suffered after a fire broke out in the adjoining property owned by the defendant, Mr Michael Norrie. She appeals with the permission of Robert Walker L.J.


Miss Ribee is a sprightly 70 year old lady who has lived in a terraced house at No. 4 Cholmley Street in Hull for nigh on 70 years. No. 6 Cholmley Street next door is part of the terrace. They are houses, which, as the judge picturesquely quotes Philip Larkin, "arise like a sigh from the last century", or perhaps more accurately the century before last. The last century saw a different feature of urban housing �the conversion of a single home "fit for artisans" into a hostel comprising a number of individual bed sits each let to a tenant who shared some communal parts. In this case, No. 6 had been converted some years ago to provide three bedrooms on the first floor, two on the ground floor where there was also a kitchen and a sitting room/dining room for communal use. The occupants tended to be peripatetic. Mrs Ribee appears not to always have found them utterly agreeable and she had occasion to complain about "used drug needles and contraceptives thrown over the garden wall." It is not the escape of those dangerous things which found her action under Rylands v Fletcher but the fire which broke out at No. 6 at or about midnight on the night of 18th/19th 1996.


Poor Mrs Ribee was asleep upstairs in her home when she was woken by her spaniel jumping on her bed and whimpering at her. When she awoke her throat was dry and she could not swallow. She noticed a strong burning smell. As she opened her bedroom door she was enveloped in thick smoke and could not even see the banister. She misjudged where she was and fell. She fell again as she stumbled down the stairs. Then to her consternation she realised she had left her keys to the front door upstairs in her bedroom. Fortunately, however, the fire brigade had arrived and firemen broke down her front door and rescued her and her heroic pet.


She was not without injury. She suffered breathlessness, tightness in the chest and wheezing which was worse at night. The lower left lobe of her lung had collapsed, but after the mucoid secretions were extracted, she began to recover and was back to reasonable good health within a year. She has, however, suffered sleeplessness and occasionally has nightmares. She still suffers panic attacks when she smells smoke.


At the material time there were two occupants living at No. 6. One was a Mr Frank Medley who lived in bedroom No. 4 on the first floor of the hostel holding over after the expiry of his six month assured shorthold tenancy granted to him in July 1995 on terms which included among others these:-

"4. The tenant will -

(c) Not damage or injure the property �

(d) Preserve the fixtures, furniture and effects from being destroyed or damaged �

(k) Not to do or suffer to be done on the property anything which may be or become a nuisance or annoyance to the landlord or the tenants or occupiers of any adjoining premises �

6. The landlord agrees with the tenant as follows -

(ii) That the tenant paying the rent and performing the agreements on the part of the tenant may quietly possess and enjoy the property during the tenancy without any lawful interruption from the landlord or any person claiming under or in trust for the landlord."

The "property" for this purpose was Room 4 of the hostel.


Miss Ribee described Mr Medley as "a conscientious and polite man who looks after the house � keeping it clean and tidy". He had to escape the blaze by jumping from his first floor bedroom window.


The other occupant was a Mr Ian Blackstock. It is not at all clear whether he was, strictly speaking, a tenant, but it may not much matter for it is agreed that he was there with Mr Norrie's consent, possibly as a contractual licensee. He occupied the front ground floor bedroom. It would seem he was still asleep in his bedroom when the fire fighters arrived and they had to pull him to safety. In her witness statement Miss Ribee said (and it is at once apparent that this is not evidence of any great weight):-

"There was also another man inside and the Red Cross asked me who he was. I did not know but they said he was drunk or drugged when they carried him out."


The judge made these findings relating to the fire:-

"How this fire started is not known. There was a report, or an extract of a report, from the Fire Service to which Mr Hartley on behalf of the defendant objected, but nonetheless I had read it, and having read it formed the view, as I said in argument, that it is not possible to draw many conclusions from it. The Fire Brigade supposed that a cigarette or a discarded cigarette had been the cause of the fire, but the reality is from the evidence that nobody really knows. It seems that the fire may have started in a ground floor living or sitting room and it spread to next door and there was considerable and extensive damage but anything may have caused this fire. On the balance of probabilities it probably was the carelessness of someone in the house and the probability is that that was a tenant or somebody lawfully on the premises (inaudible) to the tenant."


Although these are not the clearest findings, Mr Hartley has very sensibly accepted that, rather than remit the matter for rehearing, we should proceed upon the basis, for which there was ample justification in the documents before us, that the fire was probably started by a smouldering cigarette negligently left on the settee in the common parts of the property by Mr Medley or, (and this seems to me to be more likely) by Mr Blackstock, or perhaps even by a visitor of theirs.


The fire caused quite extensive damage to No. 6 but it was brought under control before it could actually spread to Miss Ribee's property. Her property suffered smoke damage which it cost �1,313.02 to repair.


Miss Ribee brought her claim firstly in nuisance, alternatively in negligence alleging that the defendant, his servants or agents or licensees or other persons for whom the defendant was responsible caused or permitted the furniture to be ignited, failed to extinguish the cigarette and failed to take any proper steps to control the fire. There is a further allegation against Mr Norrie personally that he failed to install the automatic fire alarm system which the local authority had required him to fit to his premises, being premises in multiple occupation. Finally the claimant pleaded under Rylands v Fletcher that the fire and severe smoke which it produced and which the defendant allowed to escape was the result of a non-natural use of the defendant's land.


It is convenient to deal first with the allegation of personal negligence in relation to the failure to install the automatic fire detection system. The judge held:-

"� there is no evidence before me that had this automatic fire detection system been installed that it would have prevented the injuries which were ultimately caused. It is a matter of speculation. I must draw it as a conclusion which is inevitable, but I think it is far from being an inevitable or an unavoidable conclusion on the evidence that I have heard. As I say there were smoke detectors and if they were alarmed they would have done the job. And so I think it is quite impossible to say �attractively though the argument is put �to say that because of any negligence or failure on the part of Mr Norrie to install an automatic fire detection system as required, to leap from there to say that these injuries were caused by his negligence."


Mr Collins, on Miss Ribee's behalf urges upon us that the judge was wrong in law in failing to hold "that the inference should be drawn on balance of probability that the spread of the fire and the extent of the damage (and consequently the amount of the smoke produced) were all enhanced as a result of negligence on the part of defendants". I do not accept that submission. In my judgment the judge was fully entitled on the facts he found to conclude that a breach of his duty to comply with local authority regulations was not causative of the damage and personal injury suffered by Miss Ribee next door. There is no evidence to establish that, if the system had been in operation, then the fire would have been brought under control earlier with the result that no smoke would have penetrated Miss Ribee's home. All of this was, as the judge rightly held, a matter of speculation.


Turning now to the main way in which the case was put both to the court below and to us, the judge was referred, as we were, to H & N Emanuel Ltd. v G.L.C. [1971] 2 All E.R. 835, 839 where Lord Denning M.R. said:-

"There has been much discussion about the exact legal basis of liability for fire. The liability of the occupier can be said to be a strict liability in this sense that he is liable for the negligence not only of his servants but also of independent contractors and, indeed, of anyone except a "stranger". By the same token...

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