A roofing contractor has been ordered to pay more than £21 million damages after the flick of an electrical switch caused a catastrophic fire that devastated a copper tubing factory. The High Court ruled that the contractor’s failure in its duty to carry out re-roofing work safely was the primary cause of the fire.
Flames tore through the factory owned by Mueller Europe Limited in Bilston, West Midlands, in the early hours of 9 November 2008. It was sparked by powerful gas heaters which had ignited a ‘birdcage’ scaffolding deck that had been put up by the contractors who were carrying out roof refurbishment work.
The scaffold was boarded and sheeted with combustible materials and enclosed the two roof-suspended heaters that were used to heat the factory and which had continued to operate during the roofing works. When one or both of the heaters was switched on, a conflagration started that led to a partial collapse of the factory’s roof and millions of pounds worth of damage to its contents.
The heaters were in close proximity to the scaffold and the court noted that, when switched on, they represented ‘an obvious fire hazard, which should have been appreciated by anyone who turned their mind to the question’. The ‘immediate trigger’ for the fire was the inadvertent turning on of a switch and the court stated that that was ‘the foreseeable, even predictable, consequence of the systemic failings on both sides that had preceded it.’
There had been three previous ‘near misses’ in similar circumstances and, although Mueller should have made sure the enclosed heaters were switched off, the roofing contractors, Central Roofing (South Wales) Limited, bore primary responsibility to carry out the work safely and to point out the obvious hazard. The company’s breach of contract, the court concluded, was ‘an effective or dominant cause of the fire’.