Cigarette end cause of £4.5 million blaze?

Posted: 6th July 2012

The case of a mystery fire which left a £4.5 million trail of damage reached the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) as insurers denied that an electrician's stray cigarette end caused the blaze.
The fire at the recycling centre near Milton Keynes in April 2005 was blamed on freelance electrician, William Nulty, by Milton Keynes Borough Council, who claimed his 'carelessly discarded' cigarette sparked the conflagration.
Although it was believed the first fire had been extinguished, it reignited three hours later, shortly after midnight on April 4 2005. The second, far more serious, blaze left the Council, which owned the centre, with a bill for damage approaching £4.5 million.
Mr Nulty died, aged 52, in December 2010, and so was unable to give live evidence about the sequence of events. But, in statements he made before he died, he denied responsibility for the disaster. A light smoker, he insisted that he only ever lit up in the centre's canteen.
The Council sued his estate and his professional liability insurers - National Insurance and Guarantee Corporation Ltd (NIG) - alleging that the fire was caused by Mr Nulty's negligence.
Fire engines

In November last year, a judge at the Technology and Construction Court ruled that Mr Nulty was at fault, although normally a highly competent and responsible worker.
Mr Nulty's insurance was capped at £2 million and the ruling left NIG facing a potential liability to the Council for 85% of that, or £1.7 million.

Mr Justice Edwards-Stuart said that he had found it an ‘anxious and difficult’ case but concluded that Mr Nulty's discarded cigarette had probably caused the first fire which, in turn, was the root of the second.
He added: ‘To make a finding against a person who has been unable to come to court to defend himself is not something any court would wish to do lightly. I doubt very much if he thought he was doing anything that created a serious risk, but on my findings on this one occasion he was mistaken. The fact that the first fire led to the much more serious second fire is a particularly unfortunate aspect of this case.'
‘However, in all other respects Mr Nulty appears to have been a competent and careful engineer who had provided valuable services to the centre’.
The dispute has now reached the Court of Appeal, where lawyers representing NIG are challenging the ruling that Mr Nulty's cigarette was the probable cause of the blaze. Graham Eklund QC, representing NIG, claimed there was a ‘fundamental fallacy’ underlying the finding that the electrician was at fault.
The judge had outlined three possible causes for the fire - arson committed by an intruder, the discarded cigarette, or an electrical fault - but had said that all three were ‘inherently unlikely’. He went on to rule that a discarded cigarette end was the ‘most likely candidate’.
Mr Eklund argued that that was ‘pure speculation’ and Mr Justice Kitchin has now granted NIG permission to appeal against the judge's decision.