Unexplained Car Fire Leaves Judge to Ponder the Law of Cause and Effect


The cause of an unusual event may be the subject of any number of theories, none of which may provide a perfect explanation. The High Court made that point in a case concerning a parked car which caught fire for no obvious reason.

Soon after purchasing the relatively new ex-demonstration vehicle, its owner parked it on the driveway of his mother’s home, where it burst into flames. The car was a write-off. The owner launched proceedings under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 against the hire purchase company through which he had bought the vehicle.

In contending that the car was not of satisfactory quality when he purchased it, he presented expert evidence that a defect in its internal wiring was the more than probable cause of the fire. The company’s expert, however, supported an alternative theory that a passer-by had carelessly disposed of a cigarette end which had ignited debris on the driveway that spread to the car.

Both hypotheses had shortcomings: amongst other things, no specific electrical fault had been identified in the fire-damaged vehicle and, in order to spark the blaze, a passer-by would have had to cast a cigarette a substantial distance through a narrow gap. After a judge dismissed his claim, the owner appealed. He contended, amongst other things, that the cigarette hypothesis was highly improbable.

Rejecting the appeal, the Court found that the judge was not bound to reach a firm conclusion as to which of the competing hypotheses he accepted. There might be other possible explanations for the fire. The burden of proof rested upon the owner and the judge had to resolve a single question: whether the owner had established that it was more likely than not that the fire arose from an electrical fault.

The judge’s approach was unexceptionable and his decision was neither wrong in law nor procedurally unfair. There was no logical gap or lack of consistency in his evaluation of the evidence and there was no basis on which the Court could properly interfere with his decision.

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