A recent case in the Technology and Construction Court (TCC) gave guidance on the potential liabilities of consultants and contractors when a building project goes wrong and the owner of the building alleges that the consultant has failed to warn them.
The construction of basements under properties is becoming increasingly popular, especially in urban areas in which expansion above ground is impractical or undesirable. However, such work must be done carefully, as the risk of damage to the structure of the building is high.
When a house collapsed during works to build a basement beneath it, a legal dispute over who was responsible was inevitable. The subcontractors who did the work were found not to have followed the drawings and method statements of the structural engineers. They were found liable in the first instance. However, a claim was also brought against the structural engineers.
The engineers had visited the site once and noted non-compliances with the building plan and method and had advised the subcontractors of the work that needed to be done to rectify these. They had also supplied new copies of the plans. However, they had not warned the owners of the potential risks presented by the subcontractors' work.
The TCC decided that the approach it should adopt when determining whether or not the structural engineers had a duty to warn the owners should begin with a consideration of their respective contractual duties. It would then proceed to consider the duty to warn the owners in the light of the scope of the contract.
The conclusion was that the engineers' duty was to act with reasonable skill and care and to warn the owners if there was an obvious and significant danger that would have been evident to a careful and competent professional. The duty did not extend, however, to the anticipation of future potential instances of failure to follow the plans and method provided.