Goldman v Hargrave
Citations:  1 AC 645;  3 WLR 513;  2 All ER 989;  2 Lloyd’s Rep 65; (1966) 110 SJ 527;  CLY 8145.
A freak lightning strike set a tree in the centre of the defendant’s land on fire. The defendant was advised that the fire could not be put out while the tree was standing. As such, he cleared all flammable material from around the tree and sprayed the area with water. A few hours later, the tree was cut down. Afterwards, the defendant simply allowed the fire to burn out instead of using water to put it out. A few days later, the weather changed and the fire started up again. This time, the fire spread over the defendant’s land and onto the claimants’ neighbouring land. By the time the defendant noticed, it was too late.
The claimants sued the defendant in private nuisance and under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher for the damage to their property. The defendant argued that he could not be liable for either: the fire was started by natural occurrences and he had not adopted or continued it.
- Was the defendant liable in nuisance for failing to stop the fire spreading?
- Was the defendant liable under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher for failing to stop the fire spreading?
The Privy Council held in favour of the claimants, holding the defendant liable in nuisance. Allowing the fire to burn out instead of using water raised an unreasonable and foreseeable risk that the fire might revive.
This Case is Authority For…
Where a naturally occurring hazard arises on the defendant’s land, principles of negligence are relevant to nuisance. Liability depends on whether the defendant ought to have known of the hazard and whether, based on this knowledge, a reasonable person would have taken effective steps to remove it.
When determining what is reasonable, it is relevant that the hazard exists through no fault of the occupier. The occupier’s resources and individual circumstances are also relevant. The law cannot require occupiers to spend excessive amounts of money or to achieve the nearly-impossible.
The Privy Council implied that this was not a case where the rule in Rylands v Fletcher was relevant. This was because the defendant had not brought any danger onto the land.