Hanging the odd picture up is one thing, but once you’re into serious DIY you’re bound by the same standards as a professional builder. So if something bad happens on your property, you can end up paying damages, costs and even other defendants’ costs. Nasty
There are lots of Mr Garretts up and down the land doing building work on their own homes. I do hope they are properly insured. This particular one, Mr Paul Garrett, was building an extension to his house in Horsecombe Vale, Somerset. He ordered the concrete blocks from Travis Perkins. Ray Moon was the driver, doing an ordinary delivery of three-and-a-half pallets.
It all went wrong during the offloading.
Nobody knows why some of the blocks fell off the lorry, but Moon jumped out of the way. He lost his balance and rolled into a pit dug out ready for a deep garage floor to be built. Moon sued Garrett for his serious back injury and was awarded £100,000.
Garrett was ordered to pay not only Moon’s legal costs, but also the legal costs of Travis Perkins, which Moon also sued but lost against. The story is a useful lesson for folk who self-build, and for lawyers, about making one defendant responsible for the legal costs of other defendants.
This is how it began. The lorry eased on to the site and parked between six and 10 feet from the edge of the pit on a slight slope. The pit had some of that orange netting along its edge. The judge explained how Moon caught sight of the falling blocks and stepped back with a “degree of urgency”. He caught his heel on the netting and fell 6 feet. He now wears a full body harness, especially awkward when you are 68 years old. The judge said if a safety rail had been in place, the driver would not have suffered serious injury.
Garrett took an arm’s length view, however. He was a mere observer, he said, suggesting that both Moon and Travis Perkins had been responsible for avoidable errors of judgment.
In any event, he said: “Do not expect there to be a pot of gold at this end of Horscombe Vale … I do not hold any property insurance. Just accept that I am a man of straw and there is no money within your reach.”
When a DIY man does proper building work, he doesn’t escape liability by saying he is an accountant and can’t be expected to know about site safety
Now then, if you come to Garrett’s house, garden or land as a visitor, the Occupiers Liability Act imposes a duty on Garrett to “take such care as in all the circumstances of the case [it] is reasonable to see that the visitor would be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purpose for which he is invited to be there”.
The postman, the paper-boy, the milkman and the lorry driver delivering concrete blocks are all implicitly told by the occupier that the path, the steps, the drive and the hard standing are safe. Even if he puts up a notice saying “Watch out for the deep pit in my pathway”, he still has to keep the visitor reasonably safe from falling into it.
There’s more: if Garrett is doing building work, he is likely to be lumbered by the Construction (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulations as well. The Court of Appeal decided that not only was Garrett caught by his occupier’s duty to take care that nobody fell into his pit, but also that when a driver offloads his lorry he is a “person at work” on a construction site and subject to those regulations. Garrett building an extension on his land is not characterised as a DIY man. Dear me, no. When a DIY man does proper building work, he has a duty to adopt the standards of a professional builder. He doesn’t escape liability by reminding everyone that he is an accountant and can’t be expected to know what a builder knows.
So Moon convinced the court of Garrett’s liability. But he did not convince it that Travis Perkins was also to blame. Travis Perkins then claimed its legal costs from Moon. If that succeeded, he would find his compensation payment somewhat diminished. So his lawyers asked the judge to order Garrett to pay these costs as well.
That sounds odd, doesn’t it? After all, it was Moon who chose to sue Travis Perkins. The test is to ask if Moon behaved reasonably in suing two defendants. It is reasonable where there is real doubt as to which of two persons is responsible for the acts of negligence that caused the injury. Plainly, Moon was not to blame. Garrett denied liability and suggested Travis Perkins was to blame. It was therefore unsurprising and reasonable for Moon to sue both.
The judge in the first case thought Garrett ought to have admitted liability, so the Court of Appeal ordered Garrett to pay Travis Perkins’ legal costs.
And the moral? If you do building, do insure, and do take care of men delivering blocks.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator