back to article Flaming work laptop toasts cottage

A retired schools inspector is suing her former employer because her work laptop allegedly set fire to to her thatched cottage, causing £350,000 of damage. The case, currently before the High Court, could have serious implications for any company which lets staff work from home. The inspector, Eileen Visser, is taking action …


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  1. KjetilS

    This is a title

    Wouldn't it be better to go after the manufacturer of the laptop (which could perhaps go after the manufacturer of the battery)? I can't see how her employer made her laptop burst into flames. I would blame it on dodgy manufacturing.

    1. Stephane Mabille

      Not vendor battery?

      Maybe if the employer provided third party battery, I'm sure any laptop manufacturer clearly state in the manual "Only use our $$$ batteries". This might give some ground for court action. If your employer provide you with unsafe equipments (as against the manufacturer recommendations).

      End of the day it's the laptop that burned down the cottage, laptop provided by her employer. If Ofsted then wants to turn against the manufacturer their choice....

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Yes, but...

      I would think (not that I know sod-all about what I'm talking about) that the issue (as far as she is concerned) is between her and her employer. It was [other staff of] the employer that advised her, and not the laptop manufacturer.

      I suppose should she win her case, then it would be an option for her employer to then sue the laptop manufacturer (which SHOULD be relatively easy because if it's already been ruled that the laptop caused the fire then that's half the argument out of the way). Of course, things are never that simple, are they?

      And why are so many batteries bursting into flames these days? Are they trying to make them too cheap or something? They never use dto do this!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Paris Hilton

      Re: This is a title

      Employers must exercise duty of care with regard to the safety of equipment supplied to employees. Ofsted were aware that there had been issues with the laptop in question (having had to replace a battery) and were aware of the overheating - advising the user to leave the machine switched on and let the fan cool it down! It can therefore be argued that employer (or agents thereof - i.e. helpline) were negligent with regards to their advice relating to a potentially unsafe piece of equipment. Personally I would suggest that the plaintiff made a breach of duty of care by leaving a potentially faulty piece of equipment powered up un-attended - I suspect that is why her insurers didn't pay up the full amount! Unfortunately today people always seem to think that someone else must be to blame for everything.

      Paris 'cos she knows a thing or two about hot lap tops

  2. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Seems like they should pay up

    Makes you wonder what would have been the outcome if she had been working at the office, rather than at home. I can't see there'd be any doubt over who paid for the damage a fire caused then. It seems pretty obvious the same rules and standards must apply when working from home.

    I suppose the big problem is making sure that people who do work from home have a suitable working environment there. I know some employers mandate home-workers have "approved" office desks and chairs for H&S reasons - (though it's more likely CYA reasons). Maybe they should also ensure office-standard safety equipment and precautions are in place too? Although that would probably kill off a great deal of home working - who would want their homes torn apart so an employer could fit an industrial grade fire alarm system, complete with sprinklers?

    1. Steve X

      depends on the contract

      A lot will depend on what sort of work-at-home contract she signed. In order to work at home even some of the time, my employer required that I sign an annex to my contract. It clearly states that my employer accepts responsibility for accidental damage to the supplied equipment, i.e. if I spill coffee over my keyboard at home it's treated the same as if I'd done it in the office. It also, however, requires me to agree that my personal insurance covers me and my home when I'm working there.

      It's much the same as with car insurance. Normal insurance will cover you for travel to/from your place of work, but if you use your personal car on business (like visiting a customer) you will be required to have suitable insurance. I know that all of my employers have made that a condition for paying mileage expenses. No signed agreement about insurance, no expenses reimbursement.

      1. Pandy06269

        Car insurance

        "It's much the same as with car insurance. Normal insurance will cover you for travel to/from your place of work"

        Actually a lot don't. When I was with Norwich Union, they covered "social, domestic and pleasure (excluding commuting.) I looked around at other insurance companies and found about 5 that listed the same in their policies. NU quoted me an extra £400 to cover business use (they didn't even offer SDP + commuting.)

        That's why I'm now with Direct Line - cheaper anyway, and business use is included as standard.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      Didn't you know...?

      H&S = CYA. Without exception, every time.

  3. Ben Holmes

    Facepalm Moment

    "She called the help desk and was told to leave the machine switched on so its fan would help cool it down."

    It's a good job that Ofsted don't oversee our education system or anything, otherwise we'd all be screwed...

    Seriously though, on what planet does leaving something that's overheating switched on and unattended ever seem like a good idea? My flabber is well and truly gasted.

    Science icon, ironically.

    1. PaulR79

      Said it for me

      I'm willing to bet a fair amount of imaginary money that the laptop was on a soft surface like a chair or table cloth contributing to the overheating. If I'm right then she is as much to blame as anyone else for not following common sense by blocking the vents. With that said what sort of idiotic tech support is it that suggests leaving an overheating laptop on? Would they also have suggested letting it burn itself out when it burst into flames?

    2. Robert E A Harvey

      can't decide

      Is the victim or the help desk the bigger moron?

      If something is overheating, turn it off. And if it is really hot, put it somehwere outside.

      (I suppose we should be grateful they didn't tell her to put it in a bucket of water)

  4. Asiren

    What sort of tech support is that?

    "Hi, my laptop is REALLY overheating, what should I do?"

    "Just leave it on, it'll cool down by itself"


  5. Richard Fletcher


    Now, why didn't her insurance pay up in full. Either she was insured, or she wasn't. What's the deal with only paying for some of the damage? Didn't the policy cover her enough?

    Still an interesting case.

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge


      Because Insurance always finds a way to avoid paying out if at all possible. For example, it's a thatched cottage and a new thatch job costs 100k ... but insurance will only cover the cost of replacing her old thatch which was 10 years old and worth only 50k ... oh yes and there's a 5k deductible too ... here's a cheque for 45k.


      1. Steve X


        This is called 'betterment'. Insurance will indeed normally only put you back into the position you were in, it won't put you in a better one. It's normal, to do otrherwise would be an invitation to abuse "Oh, my crufty 30-year-old thatch caught fire all by itself, must have been a cigarette butt falling from an aeroplane". Only if you pay extra for "new for old" policies will you get full replacement value.

  6. Cannop

    Why the discrepancy?

    If the repair costs came to £359,144 why did the insurers only pay out £249,813? It seems like a bit of an arbitary figure to come up with. "You are only covered for £249,813 rebuild costs". I could understand £250,000 rebuild costs but even that seems woefully inadequate in this day and age. This wouldn't be a case of insurance companies being a bunch of c u next tuesdays when it comes to paying out on their policies would it?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Rough guess

      She was insured for building and contents to tune of 250,000. Maybe 50k contents, 200K building.

      It then may be a simple case that one exceeded the other.

      Also to win, she will have to PROVE the laptop was the cause, not just an unspecified "electrical fault", which easily could be a badly wired socket, incorrect fuse fitted to box / mains cable.

      So, I've a feeling that she is out of pocket, because she scrimped on the insurance to save £20 a year. Either that or the insurance are being their usual slimey selves.

      That's why we need details.

      1. Just Thinking

        Under insurance

        If you insure a 350K building for 200K, you don't get 200K if it burns to the ground. You were under insured (misrepresented the risk to the insurance co) so you would be lucky to get pro-rata, ie a bit over 100K.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down


    Sounds like her insurance cover wasn't high enough if it only paid out 66% of the cost to repair the place...

  8. zomg ice cream van

    Lets take a guess

    Was it a dell by any chance ?

  9. Natalie Gritpants

    Note to support staff

    If someone's laptop has overheated tell them to take it outside to cool down.

    1. Elmer Phud
      IT Angle


      Shirley it's " It's O.K. to leave it on, just pack ice round the air intake"

    2. gotes

      Re: Note to support staff

      ...and if it's raining it'll cool down even quicker

  10. Mad Mike
    Thumb Up

    Suing Merry Go Round

    it's all about liability and contracts. She can't sue the manufacturer as she doesn't have a contract with them. So, she sues Ofsted (normally for the whole lot as the insurer would like to reclaim if someone elses fault), who sue the supplier, who sue the manufacturer, who sues the battery manufacturer etc.etc. All follows the chain of contracts.......simples. Makes lots of money for lawyers as well.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No contract needed

      There doesn't need to be a contract formed, so long as there is a duty of care owed (Donoghue v Stevenson, remember!) So either she argues her employer has a duty of care not to supply her with an exploding laptop, or she argues the laptop manufacturer has a duty of care not to build exploding laptops. Her choice really, so presumably she's going after the easiest.

  11. Dunstan Vavasour

    Contributory Negligence

    "This seems to be overheating - I know, I'll leave it unattended for an hour and see what happens".

  12. Daniel Wilkie


    To be fair, nobody has even confirmed it was the laptop, just an "Electrical Fault" in an old cottage, it could be anything from said incendiary battery, to something like mice chewing through the cables somewhere else in the house...

    1. Anonymous John

      Re Um

      It doesn't give details of the earlier problems.. There's nothing odd about a four year old laptop being unable to hold a charge.

      My money would be on clogged fans. Something I would have thought would have been checked by anyone fixing an overheating laptop.

      Flames for obvious reasons.

  13. Rogerborg

    Intersection of the sets...

    [People too dumb to switch off an overheating device] ∩ [People able to squeeze enough money out of the State to afford a house which can sustain £350,000 worth of *damage*]

    Since her 'cottage' was bought with my tax money, perhaps I should sue her to recover it?

    1. It wasnt me
      Thumb Down

      Or maybe.....

      ......since ofsted inspectors dont gat paid that much, she was married to someone who earnt a decent living ? Always a possibility.....

    2. Anonymous Coward

      For grief's sake

      How petty - she was retired - she might have bought the house 40 years ago for £20000 and spent half a lifetime paying off the mortgage. I bought a house for £9000 in 1975 and it's now worth ~£200000. Houses go up in price - unfortunately this one went up in flames as well

  14. Graham Bartlett

    Tricky one

    Ultimately the laptop is the thing at fault. However the company is at fault for supplying its staff with dodgy equipment - if a wire falls off a freezer in Tesco and someone gets a fatal shock, it's Tesco who would be liable. And they've compounded the problem by having a responsible person in the company tell her that it's not faulty and should be left on.

  15. Joe Harrison

    Laptop manufacturers drive me nuts with this

    My daughter's laptop overheats; judging from the mountain of complaints on the internet everyone else who owns this model has an identical problem. It's because a huge wad of dust and fluff eventually clogs the heatsink and fan.

    Not unexpected in a household environment so why do I have to disassemble the entire laptop to clean it? Couldn't the vendor put the fan behind an individual cover same as the memory and hard disk?

  16. min


    ..she ought've taken her laptop for a walk instead and left her dog on her non approved work table, and this should've reduced any risk to negligible levels.

    perhaps i oughta, shoulda consider the ramifications to her dog's health if she left it near the plate of brownies i am assuming she keeps next to her laptop for when she suffers moments of weakness. please note that i am not in any way implying that the alleged brownies are only present because she is a female. that is incidental...

    on a less jocund note, i wonder what idiot that guy on the phone was who advised her to leave her laptop on in order to cool it down..unless he updated her BIOS telepathically? own up.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    What idiots are they employing there?

    I'm surprised they didn't tell her to run it under the tap.

    That would have cooled it down a treat.

    1. Simon Westerby 1

      That was next,,,

      That was the next step if she rang back after 1/2 hour and it was still warm...

      Step 3 was put it int he fridge for 1/2 hour....


  18. Ryan Barrett

    Did the helpdesk monkey tell her to leave it unattended?

    Because that would seem pretty pivotal to the case.

    Let me guess - she left it on the sofa, blocking the fans. Then left it over there, unattended. Because nothing could ever go wrong, right?

    Have they set the bar for oftstead inspectors that low?

  19. Flugal


    Surely the house insurance would be the way to go? If they want to sue the laptop manufacturer, or the mice, or whomever, then so be it, but house insurer, not employer, would seem the best way to start off.

  20. Shinobi87

    I bet she

    tired to cool it down with a nice ice cold glass of water

  21. Nigel 11

    Partly the helpline's fault

    The employer's helpline gave some of the dumbest advice I've ever heard.

    Even if she'd got 100% recompense from her insurer that doesn't get the employer off the hook. An insurer can insist that you take legal action (at its expense - you just sign things on request) so that it can reclaim some or all of the payout from any third party it thinks is responsible.

    The employer can in turn sue the laptop or battery supplier. They can in turn sue the manufacturers. AFAIK it is impossible to directly sue the manufacturer of a product, even if it is clearly defective (unless it's a direct sale by the manufacturer). You have to sue the supplier, the supplier has to sue his distrubutor, the distributor can sue the manufacturer if thats where he bought the product from. The chain can be collapsed at an early point in legal proceedings, if it's clear that everyone believes that the manufacturer is to blame. Much more complex if there are multiple blameworthy parties and none can agree on which and to what extent.

  22. Tigra 07
    Thumb Up

    Dopey woman

    Apparently when she phoned the fire brigade they told her the house would cool down by itself if she let the fire rage a bit longer

  23. Frank Bitterlich
    Paris Hilton

    Similar problems?

    "She also claims eight other Ofsted staff had similar problems." What kind of problems? Like being so dense as to take her dog for walkies while a piece of electrical equipment, switched on no less, was overheating?

  24. A B 3

    Just gotta add

    Okay so it was probably corroded battery bay contacts, too many coffee spills over it's life. I think people need a one day course on common sense: Coffee + electronics = bad. Redhot battery = turn it off and get it serviced.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ms Visser?

    Anything to with Yo-Landi Visser?

  26. Nev


    A clear case for making sure you've got adequate insurance cover?

  27. tommej


    I blame the Dog

  28. Da Weezil

    Cheaping out.

    When my partners former employer wanted to trial evening "work from home" using VPN over our domestic connection To save costs of manning a call centre in evening hours I tabled a few questions..

    1. Would they compensate for upgrade to a business package to (a) guarantee appropriate traffic priority during working hours and (b) cover the cost of our bandwidth allowance used.

    2. Would they confirm IN WRITING the acceptance of risk of loss or damage to or caused by their equipment while on our premises or damage occurring in transit

    3.Would that accept liability for any insurance costs that we became liable to for the business use of our home (read the T&C of your domestic policy - you know how these guys love a loop hole)

    4. Would they be providing an allowance to cover the use of domestic power

    Strange that the idea was dropped huh? Guess the real idea was to spend OUR money to save their own.

    I'd go for the employer too, leaving them to prove that the appropriate replacement battery was fitted - my money is on it being some really cheap knockoff of poor quality.

    1. Simon Westerby 1

      Or you just can't get them anymore...

      >>I'd go for the employer too, leaving them to prove that the appropriate

      >>replacement battery was fitted - my money is on it being some really

      >> cheap knockoff of poor quality.

      If its a 4 year old laptop its possible you can only get OEM (read:cheap knock off) battery replacements..

  29. TkH11

    My take

    Duty of Care:

    In this respect I think the employer can argue they've discharged their obligations in respect of this because they supplied a replacement battery. That is, they've taken remedial steps.

    However, it hasn't been established that it was the battery. Though that it seems the most likely.

    In terms of the advice given to her by the IT department, the employer can argue the point that quality of the advice they give depends on the accuracy, the completeness of the information she gave them. If she didn't tell them the IT support person about the battery issue, if she didn't tell them it was getting too hot to touch then yes, you can well understand the IT person would have responded with "Wait for it too cool down, the fans will cool it".

    This particular part of the claim will come down to her word against theirs, now she's got a lot to loose, £100K to be more precise, so is she really going to tell the truth as to what information she gave the IT support technician?

    Radiators in the home are designed to get hot, computer's aren't. Even she knows that.

    You have to allow for the fact, you can't expect Joe Public to know about the battery problems that have occurred with Lithium-Ion batteries recently, BUT she's been completely stupid leaving unattended an appliance which she knew was defective, which was getting very hot and not taking adequate measures, such as turning it off, unplugging or removing the battery.

    She can't absolve herself entirely of responsibility and hope to pass the entire blame on to an IT support person. The fact is, this lady knew there was a problem with the laptop, she'd even had a replacement battery, so what does she do? Knowing it's over heating, she decides NOT to remove the battery, or even suggest it to the support person and seek his advice.

    She knew there was a serious problem, yet made no attempt to turn the defective appliance off, or take it somewhere where safe (outside!) and she's just trying to blame it all on some advice given to her by tech support person.

    I think it could be argued that the advice given to her by the IT support tech is that it is just that, advice. The tech. wasn't there in the room to see and touch the laptop to determine the best course of action to take, the support tech. gave advice and it's up to her as a mature adult to make a decision on whether to take that advice. She knew full well of the history of the laptop and the problem's she had with it and she chose the wrong course of action.

    The law expects people to have a reasonable amount of common sense, if they haven't got it, I doubt the law is going to award in favour of the person that doesn't have it. Except America that is ! I mean, what are the chances in the UK of putting a hot cup of coffee in between your legs when you're sitting in a car, driving off, it scolding you and then being able to sue because the seller of the coffee didn't write on the cup "Coffee - Caution: contents hot!"

    I suspect, she didn't know how to remove the battery, how often do you change a laptop battery, hardly ever. And not being technical, she probably never figured out how to do it.

    But if you own or are operating a device with batteries, then you should know how to remove the battery, so trying to blame this on to the employer would be inappropriate I feel.

    But there again, she had received a replacement battery earlier, so this now begs the question, did *she* actually replace the old (and presumably defective) battery?? I bet she didn't!

    If it transpires that she was in receipt of a new battery and didn't change the old one, then that can't be her employer's fault. At the end of the day, they can send her the battery, but it's up to her whether she actually replaces it.

    I await with interest to see the outcome of this case, but I think the court is going to rule against her.

  30. TkH11

    @Simon Westerby 1

    Cheap battery replacement doesn't mean to say it is defective and will catch fire.

    if the batteries from that supplier has no previous history of reliability problems then it's quite reasonable for the employer to use them to provide the new batteries.

    By suggesting that the battery is a cheap-knock off, you are in fact attempting to pass the blame onto the employer (unreasonably so).

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