SMITH V THE LONDON AND SOUTH WESTERN RAILWAY COMPANY
(L.R. 6 C.P. 14 (1870))
This case was one of several famous fire cases from the 1800s. In all these cases, someone negligently starts a fire, and the courts have to decide the extent of damages. In this case, a train caused a fire that damaged a building 200 yards away.
workmen Employed by the defendant railway company to cut the grass and trim the hedges bordering the railway placed the trimming in heaps near the line and allowed them to remain there for 14 days, during very hot weather in the month of August.
Fire from a passing engine ignited one of these heaps, and burned the hedge and was carried by high wind across the stubble field and a public road, and burned the plaintiff’s goods in a cottage about 200 yards away. The question was whether there was evidence of negligence to go before the jury. No one argued that the railway company was strictly liable.
The court held that the railway authority was negligent in leaving the grass hedges near the railway line and the plaintiff was entitled to claim compensation for the loss suffered. The Court also said that it could be fairly presumed that as engines while passing do emit sparks the fire originated from the engine that had just passed and that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to return the verdict that the defendants were negligent in leaving the dry trimmings and that the trimmings either originated or increased the fire and caused it to spread to the stubble field and that if the defendants were negligent they were responsible for the injury that resulted.
Bovill CJ, “I agree that the mere circumstance of fire being caused by an engine of the company is not enough to give a cause of action against them, but the plaintiff must show some breach of duty on their part which occasioned the injury he complains of ”.