Jonathan Smyth v St Andrew’s Insurance Plc (2012)
Insurers were liable to indemnify a home-owner under the terms of an insurance policy for fire damage to his property where the likely cause of the fire was a cigarette accidentally discarded by a lodger, as opposed to the home owner's spouse deliberately starting the fire.
The claimant home owner (S) brought a claim for damages against the defendant insurers (P) for indemnity in respect of fire damage to his property.
S lived with his partner (H) and rented rooms to two others. The policy included fire cover, but contained an exception in relation to vandalism caused by any of his family. H fell within the policy definition of "family". H had been drinking heavily, and argued with the lodger (X), who rented the basement bedroom. X left the house. She returned shortly after and saw the house ablaze. The fire started at the foot of X's bed. X denied smoking cigarettes in her room that evening and asserted that H had started the fire. The issue was whether the fire was started deliberately by H, thus excepting P from liability, or whether it was started accidentally by a cigarette discarded by X.
There was no cogent evidence, beyond the argument with X, and H having drunk heavily, and once having had a tantrum and damaging already damaged furniture, to suggest that H had deliberately started the fire. Common sense and the preponderance of the evidence militated against such a conclusion. Accident and the careless discarding or accidental dislodging of a cigarette lit by X in her bedroom when tired, agitated and anxious to leave the house following an argument with H was a plausible cause of the fire. That turn of events was consistent with the preponderance of the evidence, namely the presence of a flammable blanket, paper-based material, clothes and tissues on and around X's bed. X's bedroom was, by her own admission, very messy. The short period of time between X leaving the house and H discovering the fire was sufficient, consistent with the expert evidence on shorter times from smoulder to flame, to allow for the flaming ignition of cardboard, paper or tissues following a lit cigarette being carelessly discarded. Accordingly, the damage caused fell within the insurance policy (see paras 66, 73, 80-83 of judgment).
Judgment for claimant