In a ruling which reveals that even the emergency services are not immune from civil damages claims, a fire and rescue service has been found negligent and liable to pay substantial damages in respect of deaths and injuries caused in a devastating fire and explosion at a fireworks factory.
Two employees of the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (ESRFS) died, and a number of other firemen and police officers were seriously injured, after a fire broke out at the factory in Sussex in December 2006. The blaze spread to a container of fireworks and the resulting explosion was said to have left the surrounding area looking like the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme.
Ruling ESRFS liable to compensate the injured and the families of those who died, the High Court found that there had been a number of negligent failures during the fire-fighting operation and emphasised that, in such circumstances, the emergency services did not enjoy ‘blanket immunity from suit’. There was, the Court ruled, no established ‘battle immunity’ in relation to decisions taken in the heat of the moment by those in charge of emergency operations.
Noting that the deaths and injuries would have been avoided had personnel been instructed to move 200 yards away from the fireworks container, the Court found that it had been ‘clearly negligent’ not to direct an earlier evacuation of the danger zone. The risks associated with inadequate training of fire crews in the management of the threat posed by fireworks in bulk and the failure to properly inspect the factory and to gather sufficient knowledge about the potential danger it posed were ‘foreseeable and indeed obvious’, the Court ruled.
The Court rejected claims that it had been negligent to decide to fight the fire at all or that there had been a failure to provide fire crews with suitable equipment. However, death or injury was the clearly foreseeable result of the negligent failures and various breaches of hazardous and dangerous substances regulations established. The Court's decision opened the way for the widows of the two dead men, nine fire fighters and four police officers to seek damages from ESFRS.