Mark Wilde, ‘Railway Sparks: Technological Development and the Common Law’

The railways have been described as Britain’s ‘gift to the world’. The sheer scale, ambition and audaciousness of the engineering still inspires awe and reshaped the landscape forever. They brought towns and cities closer together and instigated irreversible economic, political and social changes. However, as is often the case with a new technology, the railways also brought negative side effects, one of the most destructive of which was fire damage caused by sparks and lighted coals from steam locomotives. The railway sparks issue has long served as a case study for the economic analysis of tort and the issue of where the loss should fall. Nevertheless, much of the analysis has lacked an appreciation of how the courts actually resolved these disputes. This has attracted some comment from tort scholars and legal historians but has never been the subject of a sustained piece of doctrinal or historical research. This article constitutes the first truly comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the cases (both reported and unreported). The study has yielded new insights into the main arguments (and in particular the need to fit spark arrestors to locomotives), the attitude of the railway industry to the problem and the role played by such cases in key doctrinal developments such as strict liability. Moreover, it examines how railway interests in Parliament were able to stymy attempts to replace the common law with a much more onerous strict liability regime under statute. As such it affords important new insights into how law responded to some of the new challenges of the Industrial Age.

Mark L Wilde, Railway Sparks: Technological Development and the Common Law, American Journal of Legal History, Published: 31 October 2019.

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