Negligence and the balance of probabilities

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Smith -v- South Eastern Power Networks [2012] BLR554.  TCC. Akenhead J.

Facts

Mr Smith owned two storey premises with a showroom workshop downstairs and three flats upstairs.  He traded as Horsham Piano Centre.  South Eastern Power supplied mains electricity to a cut-out assembly, in effect a junction box from which cables run to the electric meter after which electricity goes into the domestic circuits.  South Eastern Power owned and was legally responsible for the cut-out assembly (a junction box) and it was accepted there was a duty of care to do what is reasonably practicable to prevent danger.

The quality of the wiring had deteriorated over time leading to a build up of resistance.  This resulted in a fire which burnt down Mr Smith’s piano shop.

Held

  1. The obligation to do what is reasonably practicable is an aspect of the law of negligence.  The standard expected of the defendant is the standard of a reasonable and prudent person doing what the defendant was doing.  Similarly, professional advice must be judged by the standard of a reasonably competent professional person qualified and experienced in that sort of work.
  2. As a matter of fact, South Eastern Power had failed to institute a proper inspection regime, instead relying upon the retail electricity company’s meter readers to alert them to any evidence of problems.  There should have been a biennial inspection by the defendants, but –
  3. A routine inspection would not have detected this problem which occurred very suddenly.
  4. It was not possible to identify “lifespan” for these devices, which were capable of working indefinitely.
  5. Although the defendant had been negligent and although the claimant had suffered loss, it was not proved on a balance of probabilities that the negligence had caused the loss.

Commentary

The claimants were unlucky on the facts of this case.  The judge was not persuaded to accept that these devices had a 25 year lifespan even though that was the indication from the original manufacturers.  He took the view that this lifespan was really an identification of a period of time over which one could reasonably expect to get parts and spares.  He accepted the evidence that many of these devices lasted for much longer periods of time as satisfactory evidence that there was no need to have a program of wholesale replacement of devices such as these once they had passed a certain period of time.  He remarked, however, that the number of problems was “infinitesimal” compared to the number of these devices in use, often for 50 or 60 years.

Many claimants make the same mistake of assuming that a negligent defendant is necessarily liable for the claimant’s loss.

For more information, help or advice please contact Rob Langley on 0191 211 7975 or email[email protected].