Rural fires - end of strict liability

Rural fires - end of strict liability

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I note with some satisfaction the recent demise of a statutory provision which caused much grief to an unlucky few in the rural community. 

I refer to a section of the Forest and Rural Fires Act which made anyone who caused a rural or forest fire liable for any damage caused by the fire, and the cost of putting out that fire, regardless of whether they had been negligent. So long as the root cause of the fire could be traced back to you, you could be liable even if you had done everything right to contain the fire source, or thought you had completely extinguished the fire. 

Marty Logan

Position: Partner
Email: marty.logan@pittandmoore.co.nz
DDI: +64 3 545 6719

In many cases the Fire Service’s costs of putting out rural fires were huge, and could exceed the amount of any material loss. If helicopters with their monsoon buckets were involved, costs mounted very rapidly. 

Over the years, individuals caught out by this included farmers whose burn offs had got out of control, and hunters whose campfires got away on them. Unexpected wind changes could cause havoc. Often the cause was embers coming back to life under favourable weather conditions when people quite reasonably thought they had long ago gone out. 

In many cases the Fire Service’s costs of putting out rural fires were huge, and could exceed the amount of any material loss. If helicopters with their monsoon buckets were involved, costs mounted very rapidly. Over the years, individuals caught out by this included farmers whose burn offs had got out of control, and hunters whose campfires got away on them. Unexpected wind changes could cause havoc. Often the cause was embers coming back to life under favourable weather conditions when people quite reasonably thought they had long ago gone out. 

If you had the right insurance in place then you were ok, but you had to have specific cover for liability under the Act and for the type of activity you were carrying out when the fire started. Cover could be a bit of a lottery. Some small block owners did not have the right cover for all the commercial activities carried out on their land. The financial consequences of not having cover could be catastrophic. This provision always seemed unfair to me because in other accident or emergency situations you are not expected to pay the full costs of the emergency response, even if you caused the accident.

The strict liability provision has been swept away with the repeal of the Forest and Rural Fires Act by the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act 2017.  The Rural Fire Service is not funded by levies. A new criminal regime has been put in place whereby anyone who behaves intentionally or recklessly with regard to fire can face large fines. I think we can all agree that this is reasonable. 

While the no fault statutory liability has gone other potential legal liability does remain so that if it can be shown that a person has allowed a fire to escape as a result of negligence then they may find themselves sued by any property owners who suffered damage as a result.

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