Barrett v Donegal County Council


1983 WJSC-CC 1869



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Subject Headings:


DAMAGES: assessment

Mr. Justice Barrington

This is an Appeal from an Order made in a Malicious Injury Application by His Honour Judge O'Hanrahan granting the Applicant an award of £216,715-00 and costs against the Donegal County Council. There is a cross-appeal by the Applicant to have the amount of the award raised to £1,250,000-00 being the amount claimed by the Applicant in his original Application to the Court.


The case arises out of the destruction by fire of the Central Hotel, Bundoran on the night of August the 7th/8th 1980.


To understand the issues in the case it is necessary to know something about the general layout of the Hotel. The Hotel faced the main street in Bundoran and had the sea at its back. On one side of the Hotel there was a laneway, known as Sweeney's Lane, running down to the beach. On the other side of the Hotel stood bank premises owned by Allied Irish Banks. If you stood in the main street facing the Hotel, Sweeney's Lane would be on your left and the bank on your right. The ground floor of the Hotel would appear to be divided into three sections. On the Sweeney's Lane side was the main bar. In the centre was the lobby or front lounge and on the bank side was the functions room. To the back of the lobby and on the right was the "side stairs." This stairs was in fact near the centre of the Hotel. The Hotel, built in 1885, had been expanded from time to time and apparently the old name for the stairs had remained. To the back of the lobby, and on the left, was the reception are and office. If you entered the lobby, walked down past the reception area, and turned left you would come to a corridor. This corridor ran to a door leading to the Cellar Bar which was at semi basement level. The corridor ran along the back of the main bar. About twelve feet down the corridor and on the left were double doors leading into the main bar. These were locked at the time of the fire. Immediately opposite these double doors was an entrance to another passage way leading to the dining room. If you walked down this passage way the main stairway area would be on your left and the T.V. lounge on your right. Next you would come to the Commercial Room on your left and the still room on your right and, ultimately, you would come to the dining room.


The main fuse board controlling the electrical system for the Hotel was at the Sweeney's Lane side of the main bar. There was a false ceiling over portion of the main bar, the reception area, and the corridor at the back of the main bar leading from the reception area to the door of the Cellar Bar. There were two opes in this false ceiling, one over the reception area and the other in the corridor above the door leading to the Cellar Bar. Through this false ceiling ran the electrical cables supplying power to the various installations in the Hotel.


August the 7th 1980 had been a lovely day in Bundoran. It was the height of the tourist season and the hotel was very busy. Of the 35 bedrooms only 2 were vacant. By 12 o'clock most of the children and some of the adults were in bed. Among these were Nicola Lamont, an 18 month old baby who was asleep in bedroom 26 and the Brennan family consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Brennan and their two children who were asleep in bedroom No. 5. Both bedrooms were on the first floor, bedroom 26 being over the T.V. lounge and bedroom 5 being over the reception area. There was a cabaret function in the functions room the performers being Miss Mary Harvey and Mr. Joe Dunne. There were about 30 people drinking and talking in the main bar and more in the lobby. A group of Citizen Band Radio enthusiasts were holding a meeting in the Commercial Room and a group of young people were in the Cellar Bar.


At 12.15 a.m. the cabaret in the reception room ended and things began to wind down. Christina Clarke, who was acting as receptionist that night, began to lock up about 12.15 a.m. She collected her cash, walked along the corridor towards the Cellar Bar, turned right past the main stairwell and the T.V. lounge and went into the still room where she deposited her cash in a safe. She then went back to the reception desk. Two men enquired of her if there was a way out at the back of the Hotel. She, herself, was leaving and showed them out. She walked around the back of the hotel and up Sweeney's Lane towards the main street. It must then have been about 12.30 a.m. and there was nothing amiss. Mrs. Clarke's evidence is borne out by that of several other witnesses. Moreover, Mrs. Lamont who was in the main bar, left on several occasions in the course of the evening to check that her baby was alright. Her route would have taken her from the main bar into the lobby, past the reception, along the corridor and up the main stairs to bedroom 26. She did not give evidence before me but it is clear that she cannot have found anything amiss.


It took Christina Clarke five minutes to walk from the Hotel to her home. When she got there she went straight to bed. She was no sooner in bed then she heard a siren. She looked out the window and the whole sky appeared to be ablaze.


Sergeant McGagh was just entering his home in Bundoran at 12.40 a.m. when he received a call on his radio that the Central Hotel was on fire. He made straight for the hotel arriving there about 12.42 a.m. At that stage he could see fire in the front lobby towards the reception area and fire at the back of the main bar. Fire could also be seen on the first floor over the main bar. There was fire at the rear centre of the hotel above the area of bedroom No. 5. There was no fire at that stage in the functions room though heavy smoke was coming from the first floor area above it. Sergeant McGagh calculates that it was not until 3 to 3.30 a.m. that the fire brigade got the fire under control. By that time the fire had destroyed the greater part of the hotel and had killed 10 people. No trace of the body of little Nicola Lamont was ever found.


The experts are agreed that the fire is a difficult one to understand or explain. The damage done was so extensive that little objective evidence is left as to the origin of the fire. It is difficult for a lay man to interpret the significance of eye witness accounts of the fire. Without the assistance of experts he would be totally at a loss. Fortunately, I have had the assistance, not only of fire and police officers, but also of expert fire investigators and experts in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering.


One could not listen to this case without being affected by the harrowing circumstances in which 10 innocent people met their deaths. It is necessary therefore to strees that this is a case in which the Applicant seeks compensation for damage alleged to be malicious. It is not an enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the fire or into the tragic deaths which resulted from it. These are only relevant, in these proceedings, in so far as they have a bearing upon the Applicant's claim for compensation.


The hotel was totally destroyed by the fire and, in the course of the hearing, an issue arose as to whether the Applicant, if successful, would be entitled to the value of the hotel as a going concern on the date of the fire or to the reinstatement value of the hotel. The first measure would give you a value of £200,000 to £300,000 and the latter a value of approximately 1.3 million pounds. It was necessary to make a ruling on this point in the course of the case to give Counsel guidance as to the course the evidence should take in a complex and difficult case. I ruled that the Applicant, if successful, would be entitled to compensation on a market value basis and not on a reinstatement basis. I said I would give my reasons for this in my judgment.


The Applicant, Mr. Patrick Barrett, bought the Central Hotel, Bundoran, as a going concern, on the 24th April 1977 for the sum of £70,000. Mr. Barrett spent about £30,000 on improvements to the hotel so that his total capital outlay was about £100,000.


Mr. Barrett was born in the year 1935 and was the eldest of fourteen children. His father was a farmer and Mr. Barrett helped his father on the family farm until he was aged 24. He then came to Bundoran where - starting from small beginnings - he made a very considerable success of himself. His first interest was in a guesthouse. Then he opened a restaurant and a shop dealing in fishing tackle. He qualified as an auctioneer, became interested in the development of property and built and sold some houses. Through the auctioneering business he heard that the Central Hotel was on the market and he purchased it in May 1977. He had married in 1964 and said he regarded the Central Hotel as an investment for his family when they grew up. He also purchased interests in race horses and in public houses. Since the burning of the Central Hotel in Bundoran he has become the majority shareholder in a company which owns a light engineering factory in Lifford. As he said himself he has taken his opportunity in business where he saw it and it is a mark of his ability that his projects appear usually to have succeeded.


The Central Hotel in Bundoran was no exception. During years which most people would regard as difficult years for the hotel industry, the Central Hotel appears to have been a success. During Mr...

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