Here’s the strange case of the bullock that burned down a house – and presented a judge with a prize conundrum. This is how he went about solving it
One day, five boisterous bullocks were playing in the field; their names were Dave-Dee, Dozey, Beaky, Mitch and Titch. Dozey was the big boy and clumsy. His pals all saw the electricity supply pole and dodged around it. Dozey ran smack into the support stay. Well, the pole swayed and the newish 35mm solid-core aluminium electricity cable rattled. So did the anchor that fixed it to the barge board of Mr and Mrs Adams’ house in the lane opposite the field. The cable arced, sparked and ignited the house. When the fire brigade were done, it needed £500,000 of rebuilding.
What caused the fire? Who pays? It’s like this year’s exam question in Who Wants to be a Judge? Let me tell you a bit more of the story before you decide. Remember, I said the cable was newish. It had been installed about four years before. There had always been an electricity cable strung from that pole in the field. Mr Adams didn’t like the look of it so he engaged Scottish and Southern Energy to supply and install a 20m-long jobbie. It so happened that Mr Adams also engaged a local builder to remove an old conservatory, extend his sitting room, erect a new roof area and shorten some barge board. And when Dozey yanked the cable the farmer, now busy rounding up his spooked bullocks, noticed that the piece of board that held the bracket was dangling in mid-air from the cable. So was the cause of the fire our dozy bullock? Or was it a dickey length of barge board?
The new cable, or what was left of it, was found to run behind the new flashing, through a hole in the outer brick skin then down through the cavity and eventually to the meter cupboard. Well, said the fire experts, no fire would have broken out had the cable not been routed through the cavity wall. Indeed, to install it in the cavity was in breach of current legislation. So was that the real cause of the fire? Go further: when all this came to court one of the experts said that, in his opinion, a pre-bullock photo showed the cable to have little or no slack. What’s more, there was no loop of cable up against the house to provide slack in the event of a wobble.
So, the fire could have been caused by the electricity board’s operatives when installing the new cable, or during the extension works, or when the barge board and bracket holding the cable to the house came away.
when all this came to court, one of the experts said that, in his opinion, a pre-bullock photo showed the electricity cable to have little or no slack
It fell to His Honour Judge Wilcox to sort out that conundrum. His judgment contains some good old-fashioned judging; it also contains a beautiful lesson for all those who decide disputes, such as us adjudicators and arbitrators. Having told us the story about what happened, the judge compiled a list of possible causes of the fire. Once he had done that, he was in with a chance of narrowing the possibles to probables and deciding whose pockets would be lightened.
To do this, the judge wanted to hear what those involved had to say. Old fashioned judging requires folk to come and be prodded. He was going to find out which witnesses he could rely on.
The judge wanted to hear what those involved had to say. Old-fashioned judging requires folk to come and be prodded
So when the two chaps from Scottish and Southern Energy came along and said they installed the cable according to King’s Regulations, not in the cavity, with a contingency loop and secure wall mountings, the judge had to decide if they were spinning a yarn. And when the expert engineers spouted their opinion about this and that, the judge had to decide which to believe. And when the builder explained how he went about constructing the roof and the barge boards, the judge had to weigh his evidence.
The judge was unimpressed with one expert. He said: “He was prepared to speculate about what could be said of an indistinct photograph.” He found the two installers were “impressive and truthful witnesses”. But another witness was “not reliable or candid”. No, that doesn’t mean he lied; he was just unreliable. Mr Adams’ evidence as to the routing of the cable “lacked a degree of candour in failing to mention that he had also carried out building works … and may have caused the cable to move”.
No, the judge made no specific ruling as to who re-routed the cable but he was satisfied that Scottish and Southern was not liable, which is the only thing he was asked to decide. And it was the witness’s behaviour that swayed him.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator
Case details: Adams & Anor v Scottish and Southern Energy Plc & Anor  EWHC 1926 (TCC) (22 July 2008)