Landowners whose properties adjoin public highways are under a duty to ensure that passers-by are not put at risk by rickety walls or fencing. The extent of that obligation came under analysis in a case concerning a 150-year-old garden wall that collapsed in the midst of a storm.
The wall crumbled in high winds, injuring a passing pedestrian and killing his dog. He sought compensation from the wall's owner, alleging that he had caused or permitted it to fall into a potentially dangerous state of disrepair. He further claimed that the wall was so defective as to constitute a nuisance.
In dismissing his claim, however, a judge found that he had failed to prove his case. Anecdotal evidence that the wall was cracked and affected by a longstanding lean or bulge was unreliable. Much potentially useful evidence had been obliterated when the wall fell into rubble and an expert witness, a chartered surveyor, had identified no fewer than 16 possible causes of the collapse, of which a lack of adequate maintenance was only one.
Rejecting the pedestrian's appeal against the judge's ruling, the High Court was not persuaded by arguments that the circumstances in which the wall collapsed spoke for themselves and indicated a negligent failure to maintain it. It could not be said that the collapse was something that, in the ordinary course of things, could only happen because of a want of proper care on the owner's part.
The judge was the arbiter of fact and reached an entirely legitimate conclusion that the evidence did not establish, on the balance of probabilities, that the wall collapsed due to a state of disrepair, arising from a lack of proper maintenance.