Philosophers have pondered principles of cause and effect for centuries and judges do the same on a daily basis. In one striking case, the High Court was asked to decide whether a catastrophic flood at a City of London livery hall was caused by the negligence of a demolition crew who were working nearby.
During demolition of a building, large amounts of rubble had been stacked on an unsupported concrete floor slab. When the latter gave way, about 300 tonnes of rubble fell 8.4 metres into the basement. The sound of the collapse was like a bomb going off and could be heard for miles around.
The hall was about 240 metres away from the scene of the accident. Nine days after the event, a lavatory cistern on its third floor fractured, sending water cascading into the hall’s reception area and causing extensive damage. The loss suffered by the owners of the hall was agreed at £250,000.
The company engaged to carry out the demolition work admitted that the collapse had occurred due to the negligent overloading of the floor slab. However, it denied that the resulting vibrations had caused the cistern to fracture and argued that it was merely a coincidence that the two events had happened days apart.
In ruling in the company’s favour, and dismissing the hall owner’s claim, the Court found that the energy generated by the collapse would only have been enough to cause hairline cracks in the walls of the hall. Larger cracks were not noticed until some weeks after the flood. The cistern’s fracture was more likely to have been caused by an inherent defect, vigorous use, or a combination of the two.