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LONDON-U.K. firefighters can be sued for negligence if they take action that worsens a situation while fighting a fire, according to the U.K. Court of Appeal.
However, in a landmark judgment consolidating three separate cases, the Appeal Court judges also ruled that fire brigades cannot be sued for failing to respond to an emergency call, responding too late or making a mistake.
By consolidating the appeals of three different cases brought against fire authorities, the ruling broadly defines the extent of liability of fire brigades in England and Wales.
The judgment means that fire brigades are no longer immune from liability for negligence in fighting a fire.
The decision "is of considerable significance and will be welcomed with mixed blessings by fire and local authorities who have responsibility for firefighting operations," according to a statement from defense law firm Davies Arnold Cooper.
Under the consolidated judgment:
Hampshire County Council lost its appeal of a June ruling that it must pay 16 million pounds ($26.3 million) in compensation as a result of negligence in fighting a 1990 fire at the U.K. headquarters of Digital Equipment Co. Ltd. in Basingstoke, about 40 miles southwest of London.
The judges found the fire officer on the scene negligent in turning off the sprinklers and therefore held the Council liable to Digital and Capital & Counties P.L.C., the building's owner, for the subsequent damage.
Hampshire Council, which is uninsured for the loss, will seek permission to appeal to the House of Lords, the senior court of England and Wales, said a Council spokesman.
The Council is defending the action vigorously "for the sake of fire authorities throughout the land," said Council Chief Executive Peter Robertson, who fears the judgment could lead to "defensive firefighting" and "legal battles."
Recycling company John Munroe (Acrylics) Ltd.'s claim against the London Fire Brigade and Civil Defence Authority was dismissed. The judges held that the fire brigade, which failed to find smoldering debris that subsequently flared up, had no legal duty to respond to the fire or even to perform competently at the scene.
A claim by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for 1.8 million pounds ($2.9 million) in compensation for the destruction of a Mormon chapel at Huddersfield in 1992 was dismissed. The fire brigade had failed to extinguish the fire after being unable to locate the nearest fire hydrants.
A fire brigade is not under a common duty to answer a call for help and is not under any duty of care to do so, the judges ruled.
"If they fail to turn up or fail to turn up on time because they have carelessly misunderstood the message, got lost on the way or run into a tree, they are not liable," according to the ruling.
The court also concluded that the "fire brigade did not enter into a sufficiently proximate relationship with the owner or occupier of premises to come under a duty of care merely by attending at the site and fighting the fire."
However, as in the Hampshire case, "there was no question that a fire officer, like anyone else, may be liable in tort to a person who is injured as a direct result of his actions or omissions," the judgment stated.
In finding the fire officer negligent in turning off the sprinklers, the judges found that no reasonably well-informed and competent firefighter could have made such a decision.