The family of a firefighter killed in an explosion at a Shortgate fireworks factory has won a High Court battle to seek damages from East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.
Geoff Wicker, 49, a retained firefighter based at Heathfield, was among the first emergency service crews to arrive at the fire at Marlie Farm on December 3, 2006.
The blast, at the site between Ringmer and Halland, sent debris and fireworks across the area, also killing Brian Wembridge, 64, from Crowborough, and injuring 20 more police and fire rescue officers.
While attempting to control the blaze, described as ‘chaos’ by witnesses, firefighters lost their helmets and had their protective clothing pierced by metal.
Mr Wembridge retired in 1994 after 34 years’ service but returned the next day as a photographer and cameraman.
His family will also be able to seek compensation.
Mr Wicker’s family argued fire crews were ‘ill-prepared and poorly resourced’ to deal with the nature of the blast and demanded legal action.
East Sussex Fire Service (ESFRS), however, said the family should not be able to bring a claim against the service and it should have immunity from compensation claims.
On Tuesday the High Court ruled the service was liable to protect its employees and Mrs Wicker could make a claim for negligence.
Tristan Hallam, lawyer at Slater & Gordon, who represented Mrs Wicker, said: “This judgement is a relief to the family, who have been battling for seven years to see the fire service admit mistakes were made that day.
“No one should be subjected to a negligent employer who puts their life at risk no matter what their profession.
“The fire service’s own investigation into the explosion made a lot of recommendations and yet they argued Mrs Wicker wasn’t entitled to any compensation for their failings and the tragic loss of her husband.
“In our view this was the only fair and unbiased judgement that could be made and it is a landmark victory for families who may want to bring claims against the fire service.”
The team of lawyers argued the tragedy occurred due to a lack of training for the firefighters, a failure by the authorities to inspect the site regularly and a number of failures on the day including radios not working, an evacuation whistle not being loud enough and a lack of equipment.
They said there was a failure by those in charge of the site and confusion whether the crews were being told to withdraw or evacuate completely.
Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union General Secretary, appealed to East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service to ‘avoid prolonging the agony of bereaved families as well as injured firefighters and police officers by accepting this judgment and paying the appropriate compensation as soon as possible’.
He said: “Common sense and justice prevailed and the judge’s ruling reflects the systemic and cultural failure of those responsible for ESFR S.
“Although the ruling cannot undo Geoff or Brian’s tragic deaths, firefighters can be relieved their employers cannot merely renounce their duty of care as had been argued.
“The events at Marlie Farm were a tragedy, with two lives needlessly lost even though firefighters did a fantastic job, and the FBU was proud to support them during the incident and investigation.”
He said the FBU would need to relect on the judgement carefully. “But the failings of ESFRS raised by the FBU were echoed in the criminal trial of the factory’s owners and it’s clear that this case should not have been fought.”
The ruling echoed concerns raised by the FBU in the aftermath of the tragedy, including failure to:
1. Train staff on the risks of explosives and the correct manner in which to approach explosives incidents.
2. Pre-plan for an explosives incident at Marlie Farm, despite warnings about the site, evidence of poor water supplies and widespread, large-scale storage of fireworks in Sussex
3. Failure by the fire and rescue service’s Mobilisation and Communications Centre to pass on information received in calls they received, for example, that a “huge explosion” or “large explosions” had taken place
4. Failure to institute a safety cordon
5. Failure to evacuate once the presence of large fireworks in the shipping container was strongly suspected
6. Failure to execute the evacuation properly once it was belatedly ordered
In December 2009, Martin Winter, owner of Festival Fireworks UK Ltd at Marlie Farm, and his son Nathan were sentenced to imprisonment for manslaughter.
As the Winters’ insurance was invalid because of the illegal storage of fireworks, victims were forced to seek compensation elsewhere.
A civil case, involving ESFRS’s insurers Zurich, began at the High Court in London in February 2013.
ESFRS said it would ‘carefully review’ the latest ruling.
Chief Fire Officer and Chief Executive Des Prichard said: “The judge listened carefully for two weeks to the evidence but did say this was a very complex matter and he would take some considerable time to make his judgment.
“It is only right that we give due consideration to the careful thoughts of the judge and now look at that document in detail before we make a further response.”