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Architect Who Left the Door Open Not Liable for Catastrophic Cinema Blaze

The first step in proving negligence is to establish the existence of a duty of care. A High Court case in which a firm of architects was cleared of liability in respect of a catastrophic fire provided a prime example of that principle in operation.

An architect employed by the firm performed an inspection of a disused cinema. He let himself into the premises using a key provided to him by the owner's managing agents and disengaged the alarm. He left the door unlocked whilst he was on the premises for about an hour and locked it again on leaving.

Following his departure, a fire engulfed the cinema. The owner, who suspected that one or more intruders had started the blaze after gaining access to the building via the unlocked door, launched proceedings against the firm, claiming over £6.5 million in damages. The firm responded by applying to strike out the claim on the basis that it stood no real prospect of success.

Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that there had been no direct contact between the firm and the owner and that the damage was caused not by the architect but by an unconnected third party. Although locking the door would have prevented the fire, the architect neither created the source of the blaze nor provided the means by which it started. The allegation against him was therefore one of pure negligent omission, rather than any positive act.

The firm owed the owner no duty of care in that it had not assumed responsibility for protecting the premises from fire. In a commercial context, it was difficult to conceive of circumstances giving rise to an assumption of such responsibility where there had been no direct dealings between the firm and the owner.

The firm did not hold itself out as having any special expertise or skill in safeguarding property and it would not have been objectively reasonable for the owner to place reliance on it in that respect. The architect's possession of a key to the door did not confer on him a level of control over the premises that might render him subject to a duty of care. The owner's claim was struck out.