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  • Sean drives over to visit his friend Mary. He parks outside Mary`s house and goes in for a chat. While inside, Sean is called out 20 minutes later to find that his car has exploded into flames. The fire spreads to Mary`s house and burns it down. Mary had only moved into the house recently and had not had time to arrange house insurance. Sean tells Mary not to worry; that his car insurance will cover the damage since obviously he is responsible as his car caused the fire. Sean will be shocked to find that his Insurance Company denies liability.

    This matter is covered by the Republic of Ireland “Accidental Fires Act 1943” which states :
    “1.—(1) Where any person (in this section referred to as the injured person) has suffered damage by reason of fire accidentally occurring (whether before or after the passing of this Act) in or on the building or land of another person, then, notwithstanding any rule of law, the following provisions shall have effect, that is to say:—
    (a) no legal proceedings shall, after the passing of this Act, be instituted in any court by the injured person or any person claiming through or under him or as his insurer against such other person on account of such damage”.
    Section 1 (3) states that : “ the word “building” includes any structure of whatsoever material or for whatever purpose used.”

    Therefore, if the fire to Sean`s car occurred accidentally then Sean`s Insurance Company can successfully deny responsibility, despite the fact that this is very likely to cause a great strain to Sean`s relationship with Mary!

    Accidental or Negligent Damage.

    Will the Insurance Company however always be successful in denying responsibility for such damage? No, not if the damage is caused negligently. In the recent case of Ramblers Way Ltd v. Mr Middleton Garden Shop Ltd [2012] IEHC 473 (High Court, Hedigan J, 14 November 2012) the High Court determined that a fire was the result of negligently failing to unplug heater, and awarded agreed damages of €185,000. This case arose from a Claim for damages for negligence arising from fire in the adjoining premises. What was at issue was whether the defendant was entitled to the protection of section 1 of the Accidental Fires Act 1943. It was claimed by the Plaintiff that the defendant was negligent in leaving a heater switched on over two days and also placing this heating in the vicinity of flammable materials. It was decided that the fire could not have occurred if the heater had been unplugged.

    Hedigan J stated : “I do not think that all electrical appliances need to be unplugged when not in use. Heaters including radiant and convector heaters do however. This must be particularly so where the heater is located in a small area and close to flammable materials. It is the breach of this fundamental safety requirement, more than adequately emphasised in the instruction manual, together with the breach of the other warnings contained therein that caused the fire which damaged the plaintiffs premises. Thus the fire did not accidentally occur but happened as a result of the negligence of the defendants, its servants or agents. In the result, the defendant is not entitled to the protection of The Fires Act and I must find for the plaintiff and will make the appropriate damages order in the amount agreed of €185,000.”

    What is critical then to ascertain in instances of fire damage is how the fire occurred; namely whether it occurred by accident or by negligence. The Insurance Company will always deny responsibility and claim exemption under the Accidental Fires Act. Do not accept this at face value.