Landlord’s liability

Author: Gillian Birkby

Can a landlord be liable when a tenant puts a property into disrepair, which then causes personal injury? This was the question facing the High Court in a recent case.

Mr Hannon was a heating engineer and attended a domestic property owned by Hillingdon Homes to carry out some work to the central heating system. He started a power flush of the system; the boiler was on the ground floor and the hot water cylinder on the first floor. While he was on the first floor he heard a loud noise coming from the boiler and rushed downstairs to attend to it. Unfortunately, many years previously the tenant had removed the bannisters and spindles from the open side of the staircase, so that when Mr Hannon slipped on the stairs he fell into the living room below and seriously injured his left ankle. The accident would not have occurred if the bannisters had been in place.

Mr Hannon brought an action against the landlord for negligence and under the Defective Premises Act. The judge said that the lack of the bannisters was not such a hazard that Mr Hannon should have refused to carry out any work at the property, and there was no contributory negligence by him in the way he used the stairs and the fact that he rushed down them on hearing a loud noise coming from the boiler.

Under the tenancy agreement the landlord was responsible for repairs to the structure. The judge held that the bannisters were part of the structure and failure to replace them was a relevant defect under the terms of the Act. Hillingdon was liable to Mr Hannon for the fact that the tenant had removed the bannisters, if Hillingdon had notice of the defect and therefore could be expected to remedy it. The judge said that the fact that the tenant had caused the disrepair was not relevant to the landlord’s obligation.

The bannisters had been removed almost 20 years previously, and since then numerous workmen had visited the property for various purposes. Some of them had been direct employees of Hillingdon. The landlord was liable, as it had a right to enter the property to inspect and carry out repairs. It was liable for not carrying out the repairs even if it did not have notice of the defect if, in all the circumstances, it should have known of the defect. However, the absence of the bannisters was obvious to anyone who visited the property. The visits by the previous workmen constituted notice to the landlord.

The accident, and the landlord’s liability for it, could have been avoided if the landlord had carried out inspections from time to time, or if any of the other workmen who had visited had reported the lack of the bannisters to Hillingdon. It is worthwhile for landlords to consider their procedures, particularly where they have long-term tenants, and whether arrangements for regular inspections should be set up, if they are not already in place.

Gillian Birkby, Partner, Fladgate LLP

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