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One of the classic homeowner nightmares keeps happening: a determined man with a wrench pumps oil into a house long since converted to gas. A recent Ontario case asked: does any liability fall on the person who did the conversion?

In Bingley v. Morrison Fuels , the Bingleys were unfortunate homeowners, whose home was destroyed by fuel oil contamination in March 2001. Twenty two years earlier, in 1979, a local plumber had removed their oil furnace. According to local practice of the time, he had left the fill pipe in place, with the fill cap too tight to be removed by hand, and the pipe turned down to the ground. Until 1982, this complied with the law, and every experienced oil delivery person knew such a pipe was out of service. In 2001, however, a Morrison Fuels delivery man misread his ticket, ignored all other warning signs, used his wrench to get at the fill pipe, and pumped the Bingley’s basement full of oil.

The Bingleys sued Morrison Fuels and the eager delivery man; Morrison Fuels admitted liability, settled with the Bingleys and then sued the plumber, arguing he could easily have removed the fill pipe in 1979. The court eventually ruled for the plumber:

The duty of care and the proper performance of its content was a duty that [plumber] owed to the homeowners in 1979. It was not a duty of care that extended to Morrison Fuels or to any other furnace oil delivery company, to save them from making an egregious mistake in the face of all indications to the contrary…. [As] an ordinary, reasonable and prudent tradesperson… [he] did not create an “objectively unreasonable risk of harm”…

But it is telling that the question went all the way to a judgment. Most civil cases settle; it is usually only the difficult and uncertain ones that end up in a trial. The moral here is that the plumber could have been found responsible, three decades later, because the spill couldn’t have happened if the old fill pipe hadn’t been there. Moral culpability isn’t necessary for tort liability, and limitation periods don’t help until the accident occurs. Anyone whose acts or omissions allow a tort to happen can be sued, and may be found liable.

The other moral, of course, is that anyone who still has an old fill pipe should remove it! And the same is true about other potential hazards – don’t allow them to linger if you can help it.

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