Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd
|Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd|
|Court||High Court of Australia|
|Full case name||Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd|
|Decided||24 March 1994|
|Citation(s)||(1994) 179 CLR 520,  HCA 13|
|Prior action(s)||Appeal from Full Court of the Supreme Court of Tasmania|
|(5:2) Authority liable to General Jones under ordinary principles of negligence; appeal dismissed. (per Mason CJ, Deane, Dawson, Toohey, Gaudron JJ)|
|Judge(s) sitting||Mason CJ, Brennan, Deane, Dawson, Toohey, Gaudron & McHugh JJ|
Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd (1994) 179 CLR 520 is a tort law case from the High Court of Australia, which decided it would abolish the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, and the ignis suus principle, incorporating them generally into the tort of negligence.
A fire, caused by an independent contractor’s employee welding negligently, began on the defendant’s premises and spread to a nearby property. The property was burnt causing A$2.5M of damages. The plaintiff sued under ignis suus, nuisance, negligence and the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher (a rule of absolute liability), interpreted in part through the duty of occupier to invitee.
The defendant was Burnie Port Authority (Burnie), located in Burnie Tasmania, who provided storage facilities, and the plaintiff was General Jones who stored a large quantity of frozen vegetables. General suffered damage when the vegetables were ruined by fire which destroyed Burnie property.
The High Court held that Rylands involved ‘quite unacceptable uncertainty’ (540). It said that Blackburn J’s formulation had been ‘all but obliterated by subsequent judicial explanations and qualifications’ (536). And at the time of Rylands, negligence liability was limited to ‘a miscellany of disparate categories of cases’ and only with Heaven v. Pender (1883) 11 QBD 503 and Donoghue v. Stevenson  AC 562, 580 was liability grounded on general foreseeability (543). The justices therefore felt that the rule should be done away with and so the independent contractor was not liable under that, but could only be culpable in the law of negligence.
HCA Held: The appeal by Burnie was dismissed. Burnie, by allowing its contractor to introduce dangerous substances and activities on site, owed a duty of care to Jones to take reasonable steps to prevent fire, and the breach created liability under the normal rules of negligence, not "The rule in Rylands v Fletcher, with all its difficulties, uncertainties, qualifications, and exceptions, should now be seen ... as absorbed by the rules of ordinary negligence. Under those principles, a person who takes advantage of his or her control of premises to introduce a dangerous substance, to carry on a dangerous activity, or to allow another to do one of those things, owes a duty of reasonable care to avoid a reasonably foreseeble risk of injury or damage to the person or the property of another." per Mason CJ 120 ALR 42 page 67;  HCA 13 paragraph 43.
The ignis suus (his or her fire) rule was held to be ancient common law that was modified by statute in the UK, but never became law in Australia.
Damages in the tort of nuisance were not pleaded in the HCA.
- Supreme Court of Tasmania: found for the plaintiff against the defendant on the grounds of the ignis suus rule. Other defendants were the contracting firm who did the welding as part of expanding coolroom capacity, and the manufacturers of Isolite, the highly flammable insulating material, which was set alight by welding sparks, and which produces noxious gases.
- Defendant appealed to the Full Court of the Supreme Court of Tasmania: found for the plaintiff on the basis of Rylands v Fletcher principle. The grounds of nuisance and negligence were not appealed.
- Appealed to the High Court of Australia
Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd  HCA 13; (1994) 179 CLR 520; (1994) Aust Torts Reports 81-264; (1994) 120 ALR 42; (1994) 68 ALJR 331 (24 March 1994).