Cigarette end ‘most likely cause’ of blaze

Posted: 28th January 2013

A self-employed electrician's carelessly discarded cigarette butt was the most likely cause of a blaze which raged for two days and left a £4.5 million trail of destruction at a waste recycling centre. Insurers’ arguments that an arcing electric cable was the more probable cause of the fire had been rightly rejected, the Court of Appeal ruled.

The vexed question of what caused the April 2005 fire exercised the minds of teams of lawyers and forensic experts but the case ended in triumph for Milton Keynes Borough Council, whose entitlement to £1.7 million from the electrician’s professional indemnity insurers was upheld.Cigarette

Absent from the case was the one man who might have shed conclusive light on the mystery, electrician Michael Nulty, who descended into homelessness after the fire and died in tragic circumstances in December 2010. Mr Nulty, who had been carrying out maintenance work at the plant, had consistently denied smoking anywhere outside the official staff canteen.

The fire had been initially quelled by the fire brigade but broke out with renewed fury in the early hours of the following morning. Although the judge at first instance found that it was ‘inherently unlikely’ that a cigarette end thrown away by ‘highly competent’ Mr Nulty had sparked the fire, he went on to rule that the insurers’ arcing cable hypothesis was even less probable.

Dismissing the insurers' appeal against that ruling, the court ruled, "The judge's finding that the cause of the fire was 'very much less likely' to have been arcing of the cable than the cigarette end discarded by Mr Nulty was reached after a painstaking examination of the evidence and was properly open to him. Rational analysis of the cable theory showed that it was highly improbable. It would have required a remarkable combination of unlikely events.

"Mr Nulty was working alone at the relevant time. He had the opportunity and could well have had the temptation to do what the council alleged...the circumstantial evidence that he did so on this occasion was compelling."