The Boksburg Explosion: Was it one person’s fault or a collective failure?

25 Apr 2023

On 24 December 2022, a fuel tanker carrying liquefied petroleum gas exploded in Boksburg, South Africa, killing 41 people, injuring many, and causing significant property damage. The tanker became stuck under a railway bridge, which was too low to pass through. The driver allegedly attempted to warn onlookers of the danger, but many ignored him and were caught in the blast. So, who is to blame for this tragedy?

Although the investigation into and the prosecution of the Boksburg explosion is still ongoing, we can explore hypothetical scenarios of who could be held liable for their negligent conduct, such as whether it is the driver who had allegedly driven off course, the employer of the driver who is responsible for the conduct of their employees, onlookers who ignored the driver’s alleged warnings, and/or PRASA, who failed to erect proper warning signs for the bridge’s height.

According to Business Day, a class action claim is currently being handled by RH Lawyers Incorporated on behalf of some of the bystanders who sustained injuries. The potential defendants are Innovative Staffing Solutions, Infinite Fleet Transport, PRASA, the Ekureleni Metro, and certain unnamed others who may be responsible for the explosion. RH Lawyers alleges that Innovative Staffing Solutions, the recruitment agency for the driver, is vicariously liable in terms of the driver’s alleged negligent actions and failure to provide proper training to the driver. It is further alleged that PRASA, alternatively the Ekureleni Metro, failed to display proper warning signals regarding the bridge’s height and that the Ekureleni Metro failed to cordon off spectators in time, according to the necessary protocols.

In many cases, disasters are not caused by one person’s severely reprehensible conduct but by the negligent conduct of multiple parties. Sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the doctrine of the Normalisation of Deviance, which explains how disasters are caused by unacceptable conduct that has become acceptable over time, leading to catastrophic consequences.

An example is the NASA Challenger shuttle explosion on 28 January 1986. During this mission, there was damage to the O-ring joint sealing the solid rocket booster, which was not properly attended to. The shuttle was allowed to launch below the accepted launch temperature minimum. As a result, the Challenger shuttle exploded soon after launch, killing all seven crew members.

Similar incidents where the doctrine was applied were that of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – where, among other things, the operators had become accustomed to deviating from the normal safety procedures; the tragic Marikana Massacre in 2012 in South Africa; and even the conduct of various parties across the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In South Africa, negligence is conduct that deviates from what can be expected of a reasonable person, such as a reasonable fuel truck driver or road user. If conduct negatively deviates from the expected standard of a reasonable person, it is considered negligent.

The Apportionment of Damages Act 34 of 1956 regulates liability for multiple parties in one damage-causing event. Section 1(1) of the Act states:

1(1)(a) Where any person suffers damage which is caused partly by his own fault and partly by the fault of any other person, a claim in respect of that damage shall not be defeated by reason of the fault of the claimant but the damages recoverable in respect thereof shall be reduced by the court to such extent as the court may deem just and equitable having regard to the degree in which the claimant was at fault in relation to the damage.

1(1)(b) Damage shall for the purpose of paragraph (a) be regarded as having been caused by a person’s fault notwithstanding the fact that another person had an opportunity of avoiding the consequences thereof and negligently failed to do so. As such, in matters where damage is attributable to the negligence of more than one person, said damages are apportioned in terms of the percentage of negligence of each party that contributed to the damage in question.

As such, for example, if damage to property is estimated at R1 million and it is determined that a driver’s negligence caused 70% of the damage and PRASA’s failure to display proper warning signs caused 30% of the damage, the driver is liable for R700 000 of the damages, and PRASA for R300 000.

For the Act to apply, the conduct must have been negligent and contributed to the damage. In cases like the Boksburg Explosion, where there are multiple sets of damage, only the conduct that caused each damage will be considered. For example, if an onlooker ignored a warning to flee, their negligence would not be considered when determining liability for property damage.

As such, in disasters, the damage will be caused by the negligence of multiple parties. Thus, the liability will be apportioned according to each party’s contribution to each damage set. It is also important to remember that standards of conduct exist for a reason. Such standards should not be deviated from, as the consequences may be dire and even fatal. When a standard is in place, it should, as far as reasonably possible, be followed strictly.

While much is still up for debate, we can reasonably expect what will happen. All the above mentioned parties against whom RH Lawyers intends to institute action, as well as the driver, will likely be cited as defendants, and damages will be claimed jointly and severally. The defendants will probably deny negligence. However, as an alternative, the defendants will likely allege that the negligence of the other defendants and possibly the negligence of the onlookers – who failed to flee the scene in time, despite warning – also contributed to the damages. The question as to what percentage of damage is to be imputed to which party will be for the Court to determine, should the Court find all parties being negligent and that said negligence contributed to the damage in question.

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(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)
Philip Venter

Philip Venter is an articulate and driven litigator and has been an admitted attorney since September 2021. He is passionate about the law and specialises in Magistrate’s Court litigation, commercial... Read more about Philip Venter


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