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Written by Peter Carter

June 20, 2022

A party guest who was set alight with petrol while camping out at his host’s Darling Downs grain farm has won substantial damages for the burns he sustained from a prank intended to get him to re-join the celebration.

Terry and Nicole Ryan – who hosted their son’s 21st birthday celebration in February 2019 – set aside a safe area for guests to sleep outdoors to ensure no one would drive home from the Jondaryan property while affected by alcohol.

Charles Dearden – one of more than 100 guests who stayed over – was burned when his school friend poured petrol onto his swag and set it alight while he was in it asleep.

The Ryans knew it to be “naïve” to expect the youths to remain sober and – on road safety grounds – provided sufficient beer and wine so no one would need to leave the farm to seek out more supplies.

Catering – for which several large cold rooms were brought in on hire – included that for the party and for a “recovery” breakfast as well as lunch the next day.

The hosts had a fire blanket and fire extinguisher in the house and took steps to remove petrol and other fuel from anywhere near the party.

Despite their meticulous planning, a power blackout occurred just as it was getting dark.

Fuel for their generators was retrieved in jerry cans from a neighbouring property. After the generator fuel tank was filled, Terry Ryan placed the full jerry cans in a difficult to access location to prevent interference by guests but left a part filled smaller one in the rear of his ute.

Fuel from that container – that Ryan thought was empty – was used by an unknown guest to light a grassfire. Even after the container was put away for a second time in a shed, another guest – Robert Taylor – found it and about two hours later, in an attempt to wake up his friend Dearden, things went horribly wrong.

“I grew up on a farm, so there’s always fuel in a shed like that,” Taylor explained.

The Ryans were met with a lawsuit from Dearden – who suffered burns to his chest, armpit and back – alleging they had failed to adequately supervise the event.

When the claim came before him in Rockampton, Justice Graeme Crow identified the risk – the foreseeability of which he had to consider – was that that of “suffering a burn injury from an uncontrolled fire lit by an intoxicated guest from petrol made available” by the Ryans.

Given the experience of the grass fire earlier in the night, His Honour had no difficulty concluding such risk was foreseeable.

That the jerry can “felt quite empty” was insufficient to displace “the reasonable expectation that a small amount of fuel was left in the small jerry can”.

He rejected the insurer’s argument that because they were “social hosts” the parents should not be liable for the actions of a guest. Nor could they escape liability because the victim was injured by the criminal act of another.

The question for the court was whether reasonable care had been exercised to prevent harm by putting the fuel in shed that was easily accessible by highly intoxicated guests “supplied with essentially an unlimited amount of alcohol” in circumstances where there had been an earlier grassfire.

“There was always a prospect that an intoxicated irrational person may start a fire” and the fuel could easily have been placed in an inaccessible part of the very same shed as later in fact occurred.

In all the circumstances, the Ryans “failed to control the continued presence upon the property of the expected irrational and intoxicated guests by supervising those guests that were acting in an unacceptable or unruly manner”.

Justice Crow was also satisfied, in the terms of Civil Liability Act s 9(2), that the potential seriousness of the harm that might be suffered from a fire – notwithstanding its low probability of its occurrence and the high social utility of conducting the 21st birthday party – a reasonable party host would have taken the minor additional precautions to safely put the fuel out of reach.

“I therefore conclude that Mr Dearden has proved that the defendants were in breach of their duty of care to him”, he ruled.

Dearden’s serious injuries cause him pain; difficulty due to his scarring in working in the heat and in the cooler months; and fatigue all of which seriously impact his capacity to earn a living on the land.

General damages were assessed at $96k and economic loss damages (past and future) at $440k, making up a total award of $601k.

Dearden’s prankster assailant – who pleaded guilty to grievous bodily harm and is serving a two-year suspended jail term – was joined to the proceedings by the insurer as a third party.

Justice Crow ordered he pay the defendants 70% of the total assessed damages ($426k) “as he has engaged in a reckless and criminal act fuelled by his high state of intoxication [notwithstanding] the defendant introduced the fuel, provided a lot of alcohol, and then failed to remove the fuel.

Dearden v Ryan & Anor [2022] QSC 111 Crow J, 2 June 2022

Categories: Farm worker injury

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