Case Note: Civil Liability Arising from the Buncefield Explosion

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THE FACTS OF THE CASE

What Mr Justice Steel in this decision of the High Court described as possibly the 'largest peacetime explosion in Europe' occurred at the Buncefield Oil Storage Depot in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire on 11 December 2005 (perhaps metaphorically proving Henry Higgins wrong in his dictum that 'hurricanes hardly ever happen' in counties beginning with H). There was never any doubt that litigation of various sorts would follow.

The possible criminal prosecution of the owners and occupiers of the depot under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (UK) is, apparently, still continuing,1 but the decision in Colour Quest at least concludes the first stage of civil proceedings, in which damages have been sought by many of those impacted by the blast.2 The decision of Steel J covers a large area of legal territory, as well as the convoluted facts surrounding a mix of contracts and working arrangements that created the relevant civil obligations, and makes a number of important findings about what actually led to the terrifying incident. This Note attempts to signal some of the significant legal aspects of the judgment, which will no doubt be influential for some time.

The cause of the explosion seems not to be in any real doubt. The depot stored fuel that was pumped into the tanks there from a number of different sources. On the night before the explosion fuel was being pumped into Tank 912. But the gauge that was meant to measure the level or the fuel had become stuck at 96 per cent, as a result or which fuel continued to be pumped into the tank until it started to overflow. Another mechanism that was intended to provide a 'back-up' switch to cut off the fuel when the tank became too full had been disabled following testing, and therefore did not operate. What was unexpected seems to have been the fact that the fuel, when it began to flow out of the tank, did so not as a liquid but as a fine white mist, which gradually accumulated around the site. Finally the explosion occurred at a moment when the layer of mist had reached about 7 metres, through an ignition source of some sort (the precise nature of which was the only real mystery, although - because it could have been any of a number of ordinary events, including some car engines which apparently began 'racing' when covered in the mist - identifying the final source of ignition was not seen to be crucial).

The number of civil actions commenced against the various defendants was huge. Thankfully (and almost miraculously) no one was actually killed in the massive explosion - an outcome that, as Steel J noted, can only be attributed to the fact that it happened early on a Sunday morning - although 43 people were injured. Outside the perimeter of the depot was an industrial estate where, on a weekday morning, about 16,500 people would have been working for some 600 businesses. 20 premises were completely destroyed and another 60 were rendered unusable. Colour Quest Ltd, the 'lead claimant', was simply one of these many local businesses.

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