Gisborne District Council liable in negligence for spread of fire

Gisborne District Council has been found liable for $875,000 in damages for failing to address a fire hazard due to overgrown vegetation on a block of Council land, which contributed to the development and spread of a fire to neighbouring sawmilling and manufacturing business Double J Smallwoods Ltd in 2010.

The Court found that the fire, which sparked a massive blaze that required five helicopters equipped with monsoon buckets to control, was most likely deliberately lit. However, the Court found that the Council was aware of the fire risk posed, that it would have been reasonable in the circumstances to clear the land of the overgrown vegetation, and that it was more likely than not, had the land been cleared, the plaintiffs’ losses would have been avoided.

Judge Thomas did find that the business owners had not followed best practice in protecting their timber yard from fire, and reduced the damages to be paid by the Council by 50% accordingly.

The Council is appealing the judge’s findings.

The decision is a reminder that a party need not be the sole cause of damage to be held liable in negligence (here, the fire was deliberately lit by a third party), where it could have taken reasonable steps to mitigate risk and chose not to do so. This is a potential issue for any landowner keeping parcels of vacant land. Even only as a partial contributor, the cost can be high (as the Council has found out, to the tune of $875,000).

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