Balfour v Barty-King – Case Summary

Balfour v Barty King

Court of Appeal

Citations: [1957] 1 QB 496; [1957] 2 WLR 84; [1957] 1 All ER 156; [1956] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 646.


The defendant hired two contractors to thaw out his attic. The contractors used a blow lamp against the pipes in the attic. Due to their negligence, this caused the attic to catch alight. The fire spread to the claimant’s property and damaged it.

  1. Was the defendant liable for the negligence of the independent contractors?

The Court of Appeal held in favour of the claimants. The defendant was liable for the negligence of his contractors.

This Case is Authority For…

Landowners are liable for damage caused by fires negligently started on their property. This is true even if the landowner does not personally start the fire, for example if a guest or contractor starts it. The landowner only escapes liability if a total stranger (someone not invited onto the land) started the fire.

The kind of duty imposed in this case is what modern courts would call a ‘non-delegable duty‘. This is because the landowner has a duty to make sure fires are not set on their land, even by others.


Lord Goddard CJ also noted that the defendant might be liable under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher. It is likely no longer good law on this point. This is because the court in Gore v Stannard [2014] QB 1 stressed that if the dangerous thing was not ‘brought onto the land’ there could be no liability. In this case, the fire was started on the land, not brought onto it.