Two firefighters have been awarded damages totalling more than £445,000 after being injured while tackling a blaze at a brick-built garage, near to a house, in South Lanarkshire in February 2008.
Mr Dempsie and Mr French, represented by Andrew Hajducki QC and Preston Lloyd, were both hit by brickwork which collapsed on them as efforts were made to prise open a door at the building. Mr Dempsie suffered dislocated shoulders, a fractures knee cap, injured ankle and burns in the incident. Mr French sustained serious leg injuries following the masonry collapse.
At the proof, where it was claimed that the defenders were in breach of common law and statutory duties of care, Lord Drummond Young found for the pursuers and rejected the suggestion that the officer in charge had fulfilled the standards of a skilled firefighter exercising reasonable care and that the injured firefighters were guilty of contributory negligence.
He found that the officer in charge of the operation ought to have realised that ordering firefighters into the area next to the front door of the garage, immediately under a gable wall, was “inherently hazardous” and that “there was a significant likelihood that the wall would collapse and the consequences of such collapse would be very serious for the firefighters underneath it.”
The judge went on to say “the use of a Halligan tool, essentially a very sturdy crowbar, to force entry through the door was likely to cause vibrations in the structure, at least if the door did not open easily” and “in view of the inherently unstable state of the gable wall, I am of the opinion that it was eminently foreseeable that such vibrations might cause collapse.”
The judge said that when fire crews arrived at the scene and the Watch Commander was required to assess the situation there was “a plainly foreseeable risk” from the gable wall of the garage because of the state the building was in. The roof had burned away to the extent that only about 2ft remained next to the gable wall.
Lord Drummond Young said “It was therefore likely that the wall would be left for practical purposes wholly unsupported. That ought to have been apparent to a skilled firefighter in charge of the operation.” Continuing he said that “An unsupported brick wall is known to be unstable, and that is a fact which in my opinion ought to have been known to an officer in charge.”
The injured men sued Strathclyde Fire Board claiming that the watch commander and it, as his employer, owed them a duty of reasonable case. The judge concluded that the accident could have been avoided and the incident commander had placed the two firefighters in a dangerous position.
Following the judgement Andrew Hajducki QC said “Firefighters face enough hazards when they are fighting a fire. They should be able to rely on the officers in charge to carry out a proper risk assessment to minimise the risk of injury.”