Tenant to pay for fire damage caused by TV

The Rent Regulation Board has ordered a tenant to pay for the repairs of a house following a fire after it was shown that he could have left the television on throughout the night and caused a short circuit.

The Rent Regulation Board ordered a tenant to pay for the repairs of a house following a fire, after it was shown that he could have left the television on throughout the night and caused a short circuit. This was held in a judgement delivered on 14 February 2019 in Louis Apap Bologna and Bernadette Apap Bologna -v- Alexander Borg.

In their application the Apap Bolognas, explained that Louis Apap Bologna’s mother had given a house in St Julian’s to Borg on a temporary emphyteusis for 21 years. In March 2000, a lease agreement was signed in terms of Article 12(2) of Housing (Decontrol) Ordinance. The plaintiffs inherited the premises in 2003. In September 2010 a fire broke out in this premises and it became uninhabitable. Their architect recommended that the structure be demolished. They asked the court to declare the defendant, as tenants, responsible for the damage to the property and order them to pay.

The defendants held that the accident was not their fault and the landlords are responsible for the incident.

The Board presided over by Dr Josette Demicoli went through the evidence produced. Louis Apap Bologna told the Board that he visited the house two days after the accident and was shocked with what he found. The staircase had collapsed, the walls were blackened and the doors were completely burned. This was corroborated by the police inspector who also visited the house and assisted in the Magisterial enquiry. The report seemed to point at a short circuit as being the cause.

The defendant explained that he was a tenant for over 37 years and lived with his family. He never had an accident of this nature. On the night of the accident he smelt something burning and when he opened a door on the top floor smoke gushed out. He was helped out by climbing from the balcony.

After the accident he engaged an engineer, who indicated that the TV could have been the cause. The TV was only two years old. Borg explained that he almost lost everything in the fire. The electrical engineer also testified that he visited the house and could not test the electrical system since it was burnt. It could have been a loose contact, which would not have tripped the circuit breaker. The fire seemed to have broken out in the living room. The engineer could not find any negligence from the tenant’s end.

The forensic expert also testified and held that this was an accident that started near the TV, which spread to the kitchen area where there was combustible material. The expert did notice from the debris that there were wires without installation and multiple sockets.
The Court also appointed an expert, who established that there were damages to the property. Repair works can be carried out, which would cost €42,904.

The Board in its decision made reference to a previous judgement in the same names before the Court of Appeal which was based on Art 1571(1) of the Civil Code which states that when a thing is destroyed, the lease is terminated. The Board in this first case had concluded that the fire was the defendant’s fault, since it seemed that the TV was left on even at night. The Court of Appeal dealt solely with whether the property was totally destroyed or not. The Court of Appeal concluded that the property suffered damages but was not totally destroyed. This particular case is now based on Article 1562 of the Civil Code which establishes that the tenant is responsible for all damages caused by a fire, unless the fire was not his fault.

The Board quoted from Victor Shaw et noe v John Aquilina noe decided by the Court of Appeal on 27th March 1996, which stated that the tenant must prove that he is not responsible for the damage, and that the incident took place due to an accident or was caused due to a defect of the building or the fire travelled from another property.

The defendant filed a plea based on Articles 1032 and 1033 of the Civil Code, which states that everyone is responsible for their negligent actions. The legal interpretation of Simonds Farsons Cisk plc v Mark Gerald Nolan decided by the Court of Appeal held that it is presumed that the tenant is responsible for the property rented, but the presumption remains in place until the tenant proves that the event was not his fault.

From the evidence produced, namely the experts’ evidence, the defendant did not manage to prove that he was not responsible for the fire, although the electrical system seemed to be adequate. The expert also pointed to the use of multiple plugs, which increase the risk of a fire. In the light of all this, the Board ordered the defendant to carry out the remedial works within 15 months and in the event that he fails to do these works, he is to pay the landlord €42,904.

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