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A car catches fire in a multi-story carpark. The fire spreads quickly from the car, igniting nearby vehicles, leading to a raging inferno that causes the collapse of the carpark. All the cars parked in the facility are damaged beyond economic repair.

Who is liable for the huge costs incurred? There are several options:

  1. The insurer of the car that caught fire is liable for everything.
  2. The insurer of the carpark is liable for the damage, except for the initial car.
  3. The insurer of each car is responsible for that car; the insurer of the carpark is responsible for the actual carpark.

Presumably there are also an endless range of mixed combinations of the above as well. I would guess that there is a liability of the car that caught fire to the carpark but that the other cars are dependent on their own insurance, but I really have no legal basis for that.

This is inspired by recent events, but I'm more interested in a general answer than the specifics of that case. In that case, there are also knock on impacts on the airport involved that presumably may also be claimed for.

@bdb484 commented that the reason for the fire may play into the assignment of liability. If that's relevant please cover possible reasons in your answer (i.e. manufacturer fault, lack of maintenance, just dumb bad luck, etc.).

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    This is one of the reasons why some insurances are mandatory by law: let the insurances cover the costs, then let the insurances negotiate or litigate between themselves to sort out which insurance owes money to which insurance. Liability can be very case-by-case: why did the car catch fire in the first place? why did the fire then spread to other vehicles? Insurances are going to pay investigators to gather elements to figure out who is responsible for what.
    – Stef
    Oct 11, 2023 at 15:13
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    Why did the car catch fire? In many jurisdictions, that's going to have a big influence on the outcome.
    – bdb484
    Oct 11, 2023 at 15:16
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    I don't think this is answerable as asked. There are a lot of equally valid answers.. If someoen set the car on fire, it is the fault of the arson... If lightning struck the car it is an act of god... If a power pole fell and hit the car.... So many possible answers that are equally valid.
    – Questor
    Oct 11, 2023 at 15:43
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    That list is too short and heavily depends on the circumstances. There is potential liability for: 4. The manufacturer of the car that caught fire, 5. The garage that serviced the car, 6. The architect/civil engineer of the car park, 7. The builders of the car park, 8. Suppliers of the materials of the car park, 9. The vendor who maintained the fire protection system of the car park, 10. The manufacturers of the fire protection system (e.g. sprinklers, alarm, water pump), 11. The authority which inspected and permitted the car park, 12. The security service that patrolled it, and likely more
    – user71659
    Oct 11, 2023 at 16:11
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    @JackAidley regarding the cause of the fire, as an example in Italy (don't know about other countries) cars that run on gas are forbidden to park in underground/multilevel car parks (there usually is a sign at the entrance). If you disregard the sign and something happens you are responsible for all the damages and your insurance won't cover the costs due to negligence
    – John Doe
    Oct 13, 2023 at 12:14

2 Answers 2

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In General

The insurer is never primarily liable for anything. Someone who may or may not have insurance is responsible.

A person harmed can't sue somebody else's insurance company (except in the rare case where the insurance company's insured is responsible but dies before the lawsuit is filed and their probate estate is insolvent or the claim is barred for some reason like a deadline to file claims in the probate estate, vis-a-vis the probate estate).

A party who is legally negligent, reckless, or intentionally at fault (or a party that made a defective product when the defect caused the fire) is liable for the harm foreseeably caused by the fire.

In theory, the car park could have a contract with people who use it that guarantees to reimburse owners of cars parked there for any damage to their vehicles, regardless of fault, but the commercial reality is that this is never actually done. Car park operators routinely disclaim any liability for harm to the vehicles in the car park to the full extent allowed by law.

If a person who is potentially responsible has (or multiple persons who are potentially legally responsible have) liability insurance, and that person or those persons did not intentionally cause the fire, then their insurance companies are responsible for paying for the potentially responsible person's lawyer and for the responsible person's liability, up to the amount of the policy limits on that liability insurance policy. Once the policy limits of the insurance, if any, are exhausted, the damages are a debt of the legally responsible person.

Liability insurance companies are not responsible for harms intentionally caused by their insureds, which is usually also a crime committed by their insureds. In the case in the linked news report, no intentional wrongdoing was suspected.

The facts of the question provide no insight into the core question of whether anyone did something that made them legally at fault, or whether the harm caused by the wrongful act making them at fault was a foreseeably caused of the harm. This is the primary thing one needs to know who is responsible for the damages.

If no one is legally at fault (e.g., if a meteor fell from the sky and caused the fire in a way that no reasonable precaution could have prevented), then the owners of the cars and of the structure, respectively, must deal with the harm to their own property. If the property owners have insured their property, their insurance policies will cover the damages suffered up to the extent of the policy limits of that property insurance policy.

Also, generally speaking, property insurance on the cars (so called "comprehensive" as opposed to "liability only" car insurance policies), will pay for the damages to the insured vehicle immediately, and then will recover what they had to pay to the insured on the insured's claim in what is called a "subrogation" lawsuit against the party legally responsible for the incident, if any, if the insurance company decides that it makes economic sense to do so (which it might if it insured multiple vehicles upon which it had to pay claims in the same fire, which in all likelihood, it did).

At this very general, "forest level" of the analysis, it doesn't matter much which place's law apply to the dispute. All common law and civil law countries in the world would be the same to this extent.

But the question of who would have legal responsibility and to what extent would depend upon whose law applied.

As a comment to the question by user71659 notes, there are far more people who could be potentially legally responsible than just the car park owner and the car owners in question, such as:

  1. The manufacturer of the car that caught fire, 5. The garage that serviced the car, 6. The architect/civil engineer of the car park, 7. The builders of the car park, 8. Suppliers of the materials of the car park, 9. The vendor who maintained the fire protection system of the car park, 10. The manufacturers of the fire protection system (e.g. sprinklers, alarm, water pump), 11. The authority which inspected and permitted the car park, 12. The security service that patrolled it, and likely more

In the linked example case, the article suggested that the car park didn't have a sprinkler system installed that might have limited the extent of the damages caused, especially to vehicles other than the original vehicle that caught fire. If the car park did have any legal responsibility, the mostly likely theory to impose it would be that it was legally negligent in failing to install a sprinkler system to prevent a fire from spreading. The linked article is thin on details, however, of what caused the initial fire or why it spread so greatly.

What Differs Between Legal Systems?

In general, civil law countries (i.e. countries with legal systems modeled on those of continental Europe) tend to impose liability more readily, but are stingier in the amount of damages awarded for personal injuries arising from an incident like this one.

In general, common law countries (i.e. countries with legal systems modeled on those of England) tend to impose liability somewhat less often in close cases, but, particularly in the U.S., are more generous in the amount of damages awarded if there are personal injuries and there is not just property damage.

Another important question, which would vary from one legal jurisdiction to another, is the extent to which the car park may (and actually has by the actions it has taken) waive liability for damage to the cars that might arise as an owner of the premises or from the "bailment" (i.e. from the car owner's entrustment of the car to the custody and possession of the car park). In some places, this liability isn't signifiant in the first place or is easily waived. In other places, an operator of a car park has heightened responsibility compared to a random stranger that is not easily waived. Still, even then, the car park would almost never have legal responsibility without some kind of wrongful conduct or blameworthy negligence on its part.

Another important issue in the linked case in which it appears that the car park was owned by a governmental airport authority or municipality of some kind, rather than a private non-governmental property owner, is the extent to which the status of the car park as a government entity would limit its liability, limit the damages that can be awarded against it if it is at fault, or would impose procedural requirements upon someone trying to seek damages from the owner of the car park. The way this issue is handled differs greatly from one jurisdiction to another (with common law countries, generally speaking, usually providing more limitations on governmental liability than civil law countries do).

Where there is only property damage, the amount of damages awarded is similar between the two main kinds of legal systems, although there may be nuanced details between individual countries or sub-national jurisdictions within countries on fine points like the interest rate that applies to judgments that aren't immediately paid in full.

The other big difference between legal jurisdictions when it comes to a remedy, is that in this fact pattern, in the U.S., the persons bringing lawsuits would not usually be entitled to their attorney fees if they prevailed, while their attorney fees would be recoverable if they prevailed, at least to some extent, in most non-U.S. legal systems in both civil law and common law legal systems.

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The details in the US are state-specific but the basic outline is the same throughout the country. Liability arises when a person acts negligently or willfully and causes damage. It takes special legislation to directly assign liability such as "being a parking lot owner" or "owning a car", and there are no laws saying that the parking lot owner is always liable.

Liability refers to the connection between compensation and causation: you broke it, you pay for it. States can differ in how they treat variation in causation, for example the actions of one person contributes 5% to causing the damage but the actions of the other accounts for the other 95%. Depending on the model used in a state, the outcome might depends on how responsible a person is for the damage.

Therefore the primary question is, why was there a fire in the first place? If parking lot employees were welding near open pots of gasoline, the parking lot company would most likely be held liable. If a customer was cooking soup in their car next to bowls full of gasoline, the customer would most likely be held liable. In both cases, the individual was negligent, meaning that he did not exhibit the level of ordinary care that anyone would have for others. There are other, worse scenarios where a party may have willfully acted.

The insurance company only has a role in covering the losses to the liable party. If you have a $100,000 liability policy and are found liable, that is the limit on how much the insurance company will have to pay. The full process would be that A sues B and is awarded a sum, then B demands coverage of that amount by his insurance company C. In reality, C assesses the situation and pays A because going to court is usually not better than just doing what the courts will demand anyhow.

In the burning-garage scenario, there is the possibility that the party found liable will not have enough insurance to cover the total loss. This does not affect their liability, it just makes it hard or impossible to collect on the judgment. There is also non-liability insurance ("comprehensive"), where if my car is destroyed, my insurance company covers me even if the liable person has no assets.

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    Compared to the USA, third party liability insurance in Europe has much higher coverage - 2 million pound wouldn't be unusual at all. It doesn't cost much because cases where this gets paid out are very rare. Importantly for the driver, if your two million pound insurance isn't enough and your name isn't Bill Gates then it's quite likely that nobody will come after you for what's in your piggy bank.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 11, 2023 at 17:33
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    @gnasher729 In the US, the maximum vehicular third-party liability insurance you get varies by state, I've seen $300k to $1 million. If you are wealthy and need to exceed that value, you purchase umbrella insurance, which provides liability coverage in excess of your vehicle and home/renter's policies. It's simpler because you have one policy that covers everything, particularly in the case where people have multiple separate home and vehicle policies (vacation home, rental property, boat, ATV, motorcycle, airplane).
    – user71659
    Oct 11, 2023 at 18:33
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    When I was fifteen, I had a kind of moped, limited to 25 km/h. Its a long time ago... My insurance cover was DM 2,000,000, that would be Euro 1,000,000 but you need to add many, many years of inflation. So $300k to me just seems ridiculously low.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 12, 2023 at 17:57
  • @gnasher729 On the Wiehltal bridge, there was quite an expensive accident about 20 years ago.
    – glglgl
    Oct 12, 2023 at 19:51
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    @gnasher729 if you want ridiculously low, what you should be appalled by are minimum coverage requirements. In my state (Pennsylvania) that can go as low as $15k/person $30k per accident for bodily injury and $5k for property damage. Coverage for accidents caused by un/under-insured motorists is a non-trivial amount of my total policy cost. Oct 12, 2023 at 21:24

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