ESB liability for UCC campus flooding overturned by Court of Appeal

Liability for legal costs estimated at several million euro yet to be decided

The Court of Appeal ruled that damage to UCC buildings arose “from a natural event”, the ESB did not cause the flooding of UCC’s buildings and it had no legal duty to avoid unnecessary flooding. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

The Court of Appeal ruled that damage to UCC buildings arose “from a natural event”, the ESB did not cause the flooding of UCC’s buildings and it had no legal duty to avoid unnecessary flooding. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

The Court of Appeal, in a significant judgment, has ruled the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) is not liable for extensive flood damage to buildings on the campus of University College Cork (UCC) after floods affected large parts of Cork city in late 2009.

The three judge court, in a lengthy judgment on Tuesday, overturned a High Court finding the ESB was 60 per cent liable in respect of flooding and warnings.

The disputed High Court findings were made in October 2015 after an 104-day case, the first here to fully test the liability of a dam operator.

The Court of Appeal said the High Court judgment, if it was allowed to stand, would represent a “significant alteration” in the existing law of negligence and nuisance that would be contrary to the statutory mandate of the ESB in respect of electricity generation and would “not be consistent with reason and justice”.

The damage arose “from a natural event”, the ESB did not cause the flooding of UCC’s buildings and it had no legal duty to avoid unnecessary flooding, the court ruled.

Liability for the legal costs, estimated at several million euro, will be decided later.

In a subrogated claim brought on behalf of its insurer Aviva, UCC had claimed the ESB’s management of water releases from two hydro-electric dams on the River Lee led to significant unnecessary additional flooding causing substantial damage to 29 buildings on the UCC campus. Aviva sought some €20 million damages for losses at UCC, plus another €14 million for losses suffered by other property owners.

It was claimed warnings of heavy rainfall were issued by Met Éireann for the River Lee catchment area on 12th, 15th and 18th of November but the ESB failed to adequately respond, water levels at the reservoirs were kept at levels too high for the rainfall expected and there was inadequate storage capacity for flood mitigation.

On November 19th, 2009, following heavy rainfall, the ESB rapidly increased the amount of water released from both dams at unprecedented rate of discharge and failed to act pre-emptively by releasing amounts of water from the dam at a rate to avoid or minimise the risk of flooding, it was alleged.

The ESB denied liability and argued the existence of the dams had reduced the level of water that came down to UCC.

In a 555-page judgment in October 2015, Mr Justice Max Barrett ruled the ESB, as dam operator, was 60 per cent liable in nuisance and negligence for the damage to UCC’s properties.

He ruled UCC was 40 per cent liable in contributory negligence due to failing over years to act on mounting information of flood risk to its properties and continuing to construct properties on the River Lee flood plain. Both sides appealed aspects of the findings.

In the Court of Appeal judgment, compiled by its president Mr Justice Sean Ryan, Ms Justice Mary Irvine and Ms Justice Maire Whelan, the court said the worst storm in the history of the River Lee dams brought heavy rains on November 19th/20th, 2009, which swelled the waters of the River Lee and caused the flooding of UCC’s buildings.

While the High Court correctly held that had there been more space in the reservoirs a lesser quantity of water would have gone down river, it erred in holding the ESB had a legal duty to provide such space, it found.

The High Court finding that the ESB had a duty to avoid unnecessary flooding was “pivotal” to the primary finding of liability against the ESB, the court said.

The High Court made a series of errors in how it decided liability on the part of the ESB, it ruled. The ESB did not have a legal duty to avoid unnecessary flooding, to keep the level of reservoirs to the target top operating level or to make anti-flooding storage available.

The ESB was not negligent in respect of warnings and the claim in nuisance against it also fell, the court ruled.

The High Court also made errors in its findings on contributory negligence, it held.

The appeal court was not satisfied that general knowledge by members of the college’s Buildings Committee, or corporately by the college itself, made them vicarious liable for acts and omissions which the High Court had found constituted negligence on the part of independent experts.

The college and its committee did not have the function of supervising the expert work of the advisers, it said.

- Aviva and UCC issued a statement saying they would consider the implications of the Court’s decision in the coming days.