Spicer v Smee
Citations:  1 All ER 489.
The defendant and claimant owned neighbouring land. There was faulty wiring on the defendant’s property. Subsequent to the wiring’s installation, the defendant leased the land. It was unclear whether the wiring was installed incorrectly or whether the fault developed later. However, the tenant noticed that there were issues with the electricity and stopped using the relevant plug.
Later in the tenancy, the faulty wiring caused a fire to break out. The fire spread to the claimant’s land, causing damage. The claimant sued the defendant in private nuisance. The defendant responded that the event was short-lived, accidental and non-continuous. On this basis, it could not amount to an actionable nuisance. They also argued that they were not the relevant occupier of the land. This was because the defendant transferred their legal right of control over land to the tenant under the lease.
- Was there an actionable nuisance?
- Could the defendant be sued in nuisance?
The High Court held in favour of the claimant. The defendant’s use of his land – fitting faulty wiring – created a continuing state of affairs. Any damaging event arising from that state of affairs constituted an actionable nuisance.
The defendant was liable despite not having legal control over the land because either:
- He (or his employees or contractors) were responsible for installing the wiring; or
- He ought to have known of the problem with the wiring and rectified it using his repair powers as a landlord.
This Case is Authority For…
A one-off, damaging event arising from the ongoing state of the defendant’s premises can constitute an actionable nuisance.
A landowner who lets out their land may be liable for nuisances arising from the land during the tenancy if:
- The landowner was responsible for creating the nuisance prior to the tenancy;
- The landowner knew or ought to have known of the nuisance; or
- The nuisance arises out of an aspect of the land which the landowner ought to have dealt with under his lessor’s duty of repair and right of inspection.
A landowner is liable in nuisance for the acts of their independent contractors where those contractors are acting for the landowners’ benefit (even if they are acting in breach of their own duties).
The court rejected the application of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher in this case. This was because domestic electricity is not non-natural use of land.