The Bradford City Fire – How do large scale incidents differ from individual personal injury claims?
Large scale incidents clearly have significant differences from individual personal injury claims that Lawyers deal with. However, perhaps surprisingly, the legal framework is largely the same.
A personal injury claim, of any nature, runs along a certain set of principles relating to the legal concept of negligence. To use the disaster that occurred at Bradford City Football club’s ground, Valley parade on the 11 May 1985 as a case study sheds interesting light, from a legal perspective, on the difference and similarities between an individual incident and one on a large scale affecting a significant number of people.
The Bradford Fire has received renewed publicity this year following the release of a book by one of the survivors of the fire, Martin Fletcher. Mr Fletcher lost four members of his family in the fire. His book, in part, explores the Inquiry which followed the fire, the circumstances leading to the Inquiry as well as the outcome it reached.
Inquiries, both those led by a Judge or a Coroner are perhaps the most substantial difference between a large scale and individual incident. Certainly Judge led inquiries are most commonly the preserve of a large scale event, series of events or disaster, whereas although Coroner reports are quite common in individual incidents, they are certainly also prominent in large scale incidents.
Public Inquiries can recommend to the government the pursuit of criminal cases. It is advised that governments consider whether such considerations are required of an Inquiry before their commencement. As, to which Mr Fletcher refers to in his book, an Inquiry will likely have a significant impact upon the capability of a court to try a case that has been the subject of an Inquiry – as the outcome of the Inquiry will be public and impact upon the right to a fair trial, as the public’s perception of events will have been impacted upon by the Inquiry.
In the case of the Bradford fire, Mr Fletcher was critical of the government’s decision to call for an immediate inquiry, which commenced very shortly following the fire and without, as he perceived it, any due consideration of whether any criminal liability should be considered by the Inquiry.
The outcome of the Inquiry was that the fire was most likely caused by a discarded cigarette igniting rubbish which had accumulated over a number of years in the gap between the floor and the wooden Main Stand of Valley Parade. However, no blame was apportioned.
Following the outcome of the Inquiry a civil case was pursued by Mr Fletcher’s mother on behalf of Martin Fletcher and her late husband’s estate, and the other families who had lost relatives or individuals who had been injured themselves in the fire against Bradford City Football Club, The Health and Safety Executive and West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council.
It is through this case which we can see the similarities between large scale and individual personal injury actions. The court considered the legal framework surrounding the incident, and the duty of care the football club owned to supporters who paid to attend its matches. The first point of reference for the court once it was established that a duty of care existed between Bradford City Football Club and the fans in the stadium that day was the statutory framework in place in relation to football stadiums – at the time this extended to the Safety of Sports Grounds Act, 1975, the Occupier’s Liability Act 1957.
These two Acts set out the standard of the duty of care held by Bradford to its fans – i.e. what obligations under law it had to ensure the safety of its supporters.
For example, under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 the club had to ensure the stand could be cleared within two and a half minutes and under the Occupier’s Liability Act 1957 if a stand was deemed a sufficient fire risk it was to be closed. Bradford did not comply with either legal requirement.
The civil case considered correspondence from the local authority warning Bradford that it deemed the Main Stand a fire risk – “The timber construction is a fire hazard and in particular there is a build-up of combustible materials in the voids beneath the seats. A carelessly discarded cigarette could give rise to a fire risk.” This letter warned of the potential hazard which the Inquiry deemed led to the fire itself.
In individual cases, the same set of factors are considered as those in the Bradford fire case – Did a duty of care exist? What is the statutory framework that governs the standard of care of the Defendant? Had the Defendant been made aware of the risks which led to the outcome? What action did it take in relation to that risk? Did any other party contribute to the negligence?
In the case of the Bradford fire it was deemed that Bradford City Football Club was two thirds liable for the incident and the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council one third liable as it did not take sufficient follow-up action following its letter warning of the fire risks at the Main Stand at Valley Parade.