“Dangerous and generally a fruitless occupation.”– Justice Akenhead
No, Justice Akenhead was not talking about being a lawyer, but stating that it is inappropriate to rank possible causes of a fire in terms of probability in order to select the most probable.
In Fosse Motor Engineers Ltd v Conde Nast (2008), Fosse, the owner of a warehouse, asserted negligence against its tenant and an employment agency that supplied workers in the building for that tenant. A fire occurred at the warehouse when only the workers and a security guard were present. Expert evidence could not identify which of several possible causes led to the fire. The possible causes were: a cigarette discarded by either Fosse’s employees or the agency workers; an electrical fault; or arson by an intruder. Fosse claimed the fire was caused by one of the agency workers carelessly discarding a cigarette or, if it was an intruder, because a door had been left open by the agency workers allowing the intruder access.
The Judge held that although the Court might eliminate all but one of the causes of the fire, it still had to decide that the remaining cause was the most probable. The judge accepted the evidence of the agency workers that the fire was not caused by their actions and discounted the electrical cause as being improbable. That left either someone working earlier or an intruder (entering before the agency workers). The Judge found that as it was not possible, on the balance of probabilities, to determine which of the two remaining feasible scenarios was the cause, Fosse had failed to prove its case.
What’s all the Fosse about?
Fosse provides a reminder that in England & Wales the burden rests upon the claimant to overcome the evidential burden. In some respects the fact that the Judge did not choose to decide between (what he regarded as) the remaining feasible causes was academic since, in either scenario, Fosse would not have been successful. However, the fact that the Judge chose not to decide may be useful in defending claims where the exact circumstances that gave rise to the allegation are unclear: It is therefore always worthwhile looking into causation issues with a critical eye.
In Drake v Harbour (2008), the lack of proof of an exact cause did not prevent recovery. The claimant engaged the defendant electrician to rewire her home. She was away from the property during the work when a fire started in the loft where Harbour had been working. The Court of Appeal held that the fact that the claimant was unable to demonstrate the precise mechanism that led to the fire was not a bar to recovery; if a claimant proved that a defendant was negligent and a loss was caused that was of a kind likely to have resulted from such negligence, that would ordinarily be enough to infer that it was probably so caused. Further, as Harbour was suggesting that it was not his negligence that caused the fire, then it was his burden to suggest what the probable cause was, and to properly plead it.
Drake suggests that where negligence can be established you do not necessarily have to show the precise mechanism as an English Court might infer that it was the defendant’s negligence that caused the loss; the onus then shifting to the defendant to prove that alternative causes are at least “as likely”.
These two cases highlight the importance of considering the cogency of the factual (and expert) evidence in proceedings. Drake suggests that even if you don’t know the precise mechanism, if you can show that the likely causes all would have emanated from the negligence of a specified person, that suffices. If an English Court can be satisfied that a party was negligent it may not always be necessary to show the most likely cause. In Fosse, though, because the causes may have had different culprits, and because negligence could not necessarily be shown, the causation hurdle could not be overcome.