Exploding Substation

Strict liability for nuisance to neighbours following Rylands v Fletcher?


Returning home, a couple saw a black cloud where their house should be. Flames were coming from a burning fence adjacent to high voltage switch-gear some 30m from their house. With explosive force, overheated oil in a sub-station transformer was ejected skyward. A plume of smoke rose several hundred feet. The immediate area was showered with hot transformer oil and shrapnel from the shattered metal switch gear housing.

The metal lid to the switchgear was hurled onto the road directly outside the house. The lid’s 8 retaining bolts and washers were sheared off by the explosion. 2 of the bolts flew into the front garden, one landing at the front door and the other on the garden path. 2 washers landed in the back garden outside the kitchen door and 1 bolt came to rest inside the back gate. A bird was brought down by part of the blast debris, found later beside its carcass on the house roof. Fortunately, there were no other fatalities.

The oil contained Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and other contaminants which are potentially harmful to health.

The householders brought a claim against the controller and lessee or licensee of the substation for unlawful nuisance citing Rylands v Fletcher from which the following doctrine of strict liability has been applied in England and Wales; "the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril, and, if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape". [1]

Rylands v Fletcher Cited as Precedent

Despite the strict liability under Rylands v Fletcher, the network power operator initially denied liability. Court proceedings were initiated and a settlement meeting arranged. Shortly before the meeting was due to be held, the network operator accepted liability but not that it had caused damage or was responsible for compensating the victims of the explosion. They cancelled the meeting.

Expert Evidence Lead to a settlement

Expert reports were prepared setting out the damage, remedial works and loss. Faced with the expert evidence the network operator agreed again to a meeting at which, after a long day’s negotiation, it agreed to pay both damages and costs.

[1] Bohlen (1911) 300
Impact Damage and oil contamination from explosion

Impact Damage and oil contamination from explosion

Spots of oil on wall facing exploded electrical substation

Spots of oil on wall facing exploded electrical substation

Compensation s not Automatically Forthcoming

Those presently maintaining supply cables and associated switchgear, etc. may not have comprehensive records of the plant for which they are responsible. This can compromise adequate routine maintenance. Nationwide in 1985 there were over 11,000 similar transformers. Explosions occur but compensation is not automatically given for the impact on neighbouring properties. Civil litigation against relatively wealthy electricity companies can be a daunting prospect for most, but properly prepared claims may succeed without lengthy and prohibitively expensive court hearings.