Seymour Furlong Lawyers

In a recent decision the Queensland Court of Appeal in Ryan & Anor vs Dearden & Anor [2023] QCA 20 considered the liability of an owner of premises for injuries sustained to one of the guests that attended a party there.

The Facts

The Defendant was the owner of a farm property in rural Queensland.

The Plaintiff was a guest at a party at the property.

On the property, there was fuel stored in a shed which was used for a generator which provided electricity for the party during the night.

During the night, intoxicated guests used some of the fuel to set a grass fire alight on the premises.

Late in the evening the Plaintiff retrieved his swag and slept outside.

Whilst the Plaintiff slept, another guest entered the shed, located some fuel, poured it onto the Plaintiff and set him alight, causing serious injuries.

The Claim

The Plaintiff sued the Defendant claiming they were negligent.

In an initial decision the Plaintiff was successful.

The judge held that the Defendant owed the Plaintiff a duty of care to protect him from reckless behaviour of intoxicated party guests particularly in circumstances where:

  • the Defendant had created a special danger by storing the fuel in the shed, in circumstances where there had already been an improper use of the fuel earlier in the night, i.e.- the grass fire.
  • the Defendants were negligent by omitting to remove the fuel from potential access by guests following the grass fire.

The Appeal

The Defendant appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal and the Court of Appeal overturned the decision and therefore dismissed the Plaintiffs claim.

The reasoning the court gave was that under ordinary common law rules there is no duty to prevent a third party from harming another, by criminal conduct or otherwise unless there exist;

  • a special relationship imposed on the Defendant by an element of control over the third party
  • a special relationship where the Defendant facilitates the harm done by the third party, or
  • the Defendant by their actions creates a special danger, which if any, would then give rise to a duty of care being owed to the victim by the Defendant. This is so regardless of how foreseeable such harm may be to the victim if the defender does not take steps to prevent it.

In this case, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial judge that leaving fuel at the premises created a special danger.

They said a fire could be created by guests in many ways and keep small quantities of fuel on premises was commonplace in rural household settings.

They went on to say if occupiers were found to be under a legal duty to take steps to prevent harm to another by a third party (from the misuse of things kept in an ordinary way on their properties), the burden would be intolerable.

Further, based on considerations of practicality and fairness, the common law does not ordinarily impose liability for omissions.

Therefore, the general common law rule was not displaced and responsibility for the assault lied solely against the third party, and not the occupier.