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Liability for Defective Products – Court of Appeal Gives Guidance

A factory fire which caused £20 million worth of damage gave rise to an important case in which the Court of Appeal took a modern view of product liability and consumer protection laws which date back to the early 20th Century.

The blaze started when a heating element was mistakenly switched on in an empty chemical holding tank which was lined with flammable polypropylene. The tank had been fitted with a safety device, which was supposed to warn against liquid in the tank falling below a certain level or rising above a certain temperature, but which had failed to operate.

The company that owned the factory launched proceedings against the manufacturer of the device and a judge accepted that it was unreliable and seriously defective. Amongst other things, it had not been subjected to an adequate testing regime and the instructions that came with it were manifestly unsatisfactory.

The company’s claim was nevertheless dismissed on the basis that, following an earlier, less serious, fire involving the same tank, it was on notice that the device was malfunctioning. It had thereafter elected largely to rely upon operator vigilance to guard against the risk of fire and it was that decision, rather than any defects in the device, that was the immediate cause of the blaze.

In dismissing the company’s challenge to that decision, the Court noted that the evidence gave the impression of a perilous lack of internal coordination and that members of its staff were ignorant and indifferent to the fire peril. Reliance on operator vigilance was so patently inadequate as to break the chain of causation between the fire and the defective device.

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