Summary

This case concerned a professional negligence claim against a firm of Surveyors, relating to a building survey of a former mill. The Surveyors were found not to have been negligent in failing to identify the cause of cracking in the brickwork of the mill.

Background

In 2003, Igloo Regeneration (General Partner) Ltd (“Igloo”) purchased the mill for c. £16.4m. Although the Surveyors noticed cracking in three brick piers, they advised that this appeared to be of recent origin and recommended that their structural engineer be appointed to carry out ongoing inspections of the piers. In the interim, they suggested that remedial ties be used to strengthen the walls as a holding measure, a monitoring exercise and retention of £20,000 plus VAT within the planned maintenance schedule.

The monitoring initially demonstrated only slight movement of the cracks but by 2007, large increases in crack sizes were revealed and compression failure was identified.

Allegations of Negligence

It was alleged that the Surveyors should have identified the possibility of compression failure and through their identification of cracks, they should have recommended further intrusive investigations into the cause. It was Igloo’s case that if they had been advised of the true extent of remedial repairs required, they would have either pulled out of the purchase or proceeded at a price reduced by the cost of the requisite remedial works.

The important factors considered were:

(i) In May 2003, there was no obvious cracking to the three piers which was to be contrasted with the very visible damage present by February 2007;
(ii) There was nothing to suggest that there had been a material increase in the loading of the walls to explain the cracking;
(iii) The building had stood for over 170 years without any obvious or serious structural failure;
(iv) The area of the cracking was very small in relative terms;
(v) There was no other signs of compression failure.

The experts agreed there was no obvious physical sign from which a competent engineer could readily conclude the cause of the cracking, and furthermore, compression failure was only a remote possibility.

In finding in favour of the Surveyors, the Judge stated that he had consciously avoided an approach based on hindsight. He said it was very easy but wrong to jump to a conclusion that simply because a professional was wrong that he or she was negligent.

Although this case is fact specific, it is a reminder that the scope of a professional’s retainer remains paramount to assessing their liability in the event of a problem arising. If in doubt, a professional should flag issues and recommend expert advice, if it is outside of his/her area of expertise.

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