Case Studies: Contractors' Negligence

Damage to adjoining properties

Our American investment banker client undertook a multimillion pound refurbishment of his Kensington home, including the construction of a basement gymnasium and swimming pool.

Unfortunately, during the course of excavations and piling for the new foundations, extensive damage was caused to the houses either side. The Party Wall Etc Act 1996 rendered our client personally liable in the first instance for all the damage, for which the claims amounted to in excess of £750,000.

After settling with the neighbours he set about exploring the prospects for recovering his outlay from the main contractor for negligent breach of contract, and asked us to review the history and documentation of the project, and to establish and collate the relevant evidence. The architect cum project manager permitted us access to the literal library of documents, and we expended a mammoth amount of time identifying the relevant chronology, events, parties and paperwork to support a claim. We then introduced specialist solicitors who commenced preparation of proceedings against the main contractor.

Once the claim had been served the main contractor then drew into the litigation various other parties to the contract: piling sub-contractors; architect/project manager; consulting engineers; quantity surveyors and other sub-contractors; alleging that they in fact were responsible for the problems. With all of those parties, plus their respective insurance companies and solicitors, and by this time also a large complement of barristers and QC’s, the litigation was set to outweigh the value of the claim. Indeed, by the time we met to attempt a formal mediation, the costs for all parties were already in excess of £300,000. In the event, compromise agreements were reached and our client recovered a large proportion of his claim and legal costs.

Painstaking investigation and detailed research to build the foundation for a claim will often be the difference between success and failure.

Defective underpinning - total demolition

This grand end of terrace Finsbury Park property had long ago been converted into four spacious flats, but our property company client decided to realise the potential for a basement storey to be created from the existing half-basement.

After securing planning consent they retained a contractor to carry out the necessary excavations and underpinning. Unfortunately, the contractor failed to adequately support the existing structure, and a major movement occurred. The Health & Safety Executive ordered the property to be demolished, whilst concurrently shoring the adjoining house. None of the occupants’ contents could safely be moved out and they were destroyed in the demolition process. There were major claims against our client, who in turn was claiming against the negligent contractors. There was no cover under the buildings insurance policy because no insured peril had occurred.

Liability by the contractors’ insurers was neither admitted nor denied, but they did ultimately agree to deal with the claim. Architects, engineers and surveyors were retained to design and oversee the reconstruction, and our client took the opportunity to enlarge the footprint of the property and increase the number of flats from the original 4 to six. The total outlay, including paying off the claims to the tenants, was £1.667m, against which we secured from the contractor’s insurers a settlement of £1.365m. Although it took two years from the incident to finalise the rebuild and the claim, for an outlay of just over £300,000 our client added about a million pounds in value to their investment.

The moral of this story was our client’s wisdom in checking their contractor was appropriately insured before the excavation works commenced.

Careless demolitions - impact damage

Our retired clients, comfortably settled in their luxury Stanmore home, were none too happy when their neighbour’s demolition crew swung their digger round a little too high and little too close to their side glass-roofed addition, smashing through the roof and causing falling debris to damage their hand-painted customised kitchen.

Their building insurers appointed loss adjusters, who in turn appointed surveyors, and a company to carry out emergency protection. Pretty soon the clients began to feel that they were not being properly treated, especially given their insurance company had every prospect of recovering the majority of claim payments from the neighbour and their negligent contractor. They asked us to review matters and advise.

It was immediately apparent that the senior loss adjuster dealing with claim was obsessively difficult and pedantic over every single aspect of the claim, and was intent on short-changing the client so that when he, or the insurers for whom he worked, in turn presented a recovery claim to the third parties, they had a better prospect of getting all the money back instead of just a proportion. We considered the approach unfair and unreasonable, sacked the surveyor the adjuster had appointed, and appointed another in his stead who would act for the client rather than the insurer.

We had a battle with the adjuster over virtually every single item on the claim, but our persistence paid off, and in the end the insurers satisfied our clients’ full entitlements with a payment of £80,000.

The over-riding factor causing the difficulties in this case was not the loss adjuster, but the quality of the policy and that our clients had insured their prestigious property with a mass-market insurer, rather than an insurer specifically serving the high net worth market.

Apartment fire

Losing your home and all its treasured possessions, together with years of accumulated professional research material, is a very traumatic experience.

Even more so when the loss adjuster (based upon an erroneous fire brigade report suggesting the cause was ignition by heated hair rollers left on adjacent to paper) accuses you of having started the fire.

Well that is what happened to one of our single female clients with short straight hair, whose only rollers were in a cupboard missing its plug. And to cap it all – she had no contents insurance. When her surveyor proved there was no evidence of a plug in the socket where the brigade said the fire had started, she then brought us in to fight her corner.

With the help of some legal muscle and independent forensic scientists, we demonstrated the fire had in fact been caused by building contractors burning off paintwork during external decorations, which ignited a sash cord, and then smouldered for some hours before developing into full blaze. Joining forces on this occasion with the building insurers, we sued the builders, whose own insurers conceded defeat on the first day of trial, and paid for all our clients losses.

She was so delighted with the end result, she married our assessor!

Sorry ladies, we only offer that level of service once per lifetime.