Knowledge is not everything: Landlord liable for unknown defect

In the recent case of Hannon v Hillingdon Homes Limited [2012], the High Court held a Landlord liable for injuries suffered by a third party who fell through a gap where a staircase previously stood, that staircase having been removed by the Tenant a number of years previously without the Landlord`s knowledge.

Under section 4 Defective Premises Act 1972, Landlords are required to take "such care are is reasonable on all the circumstances" to ensure that any person who may come into contact with a property is safe from personal injury or damage to property caused by a defect or state of disrepair at the property.

In Hannon, the Tenant of a house had removed a staircase at the property in the 1990s. In 2008, Mr Hannon, a heating engineer employed by the Landlord`s maintenance contractor, attended the property to undertake work on the boiler. Whilst running downstairs, Mr Hannon fell though the gap where the staircase previously stood and was injured. 

The Landlord had never been told by the Tenant that the staircase had been removed by the Tenant. However, the High Court determined that the Landlord was liable for the injuries suffered by Mr Hannon because:-

1. The Landlord`s repair obligation under the tenancy agreement did not exclude responsibility for repairing any defect or damage caused by the Tenant. 

2. The Court found that there had been a number of visits to the property by contractors employed by the Landlord since the staircase had been removed. As the contractors were agents of the Landlord and as there was no requirement for the Landlord to be notified in writing by the Tenant of any defect or disrepair, each visit to the property by contractors and employees of the Landlord was held to be a report to the Landlord of a state of disrepair/defect. Having not attended to the disrepair/defect - the missing staircase - when having received notice of it, the Landlord was liable for the injuries arising from it. 

3. The Landlord is liable for loss or damage suffered from a defect/disrepair if the Landlord knew or should have known about the defect/disrepair. The tenancy agreement provided the Landlord with the right to inspect the property and to carry out repairs. The Landlord did not exercise this right despite being entitled to do so. The Landlord therefore failed to take reasonable care in all the circumstances to ensure that persons that could be affected by the disrepair/defect were safe from injury, even though it had no express notice of the missing staircase. 

Landlord`s should undertake regular reviews of their tenancy agreements to ensure that it is kept updated and reflects any changes in legislation or caselaw. In light of Hannon, Landlords should in particular consider whether their tenancy agreements leave them exposed to claims by Tenants or third parties arising from injury or damage to property caused by defects or disrepair within a rented property. 

The insertion of clauses restricting alterations, limiting a Landlord`s liability to repair defects or disrepair caused by Tenants liability and ensuring that all defects and disrepair must be reported in writing are just a few steps that a Landlord can take to mimimise the possibility of finding themselves in the same position as Hillingdon Homes Limited 

Rollits Property Dispute Resolution Group specialises in all aspects of landlord and tenant matters whether commercial or residential. If you have any queries arising from this article, please call me on 01482 337367 or email christopher.drinkall@rollits.com, if you have any general queries or concerns to contentious property matters, contact Ralph Gilbert, partner and Head of Rollits` Property Dispute Resolution team.

Posted on: 24/09/2012

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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