17 August 2012

Slammed doors lead to tears and recriminations

The message: Landlords need to take more care to protect their tenants.

The case: The Court of Appeal has considered who should be responsible for physical injury suffered by a tenant using the common parts of a property, in Alexander v Freshwater Properties and Christopher Place (27.07.12). In August 2007, Ms Alexander suffered serious injury to her left hand when she caught it in the heavy front door to the block of flats in which she lived.

The self-closing mechanism had not been working for some time, so residents had to pull the door shut when exiting the property. Usually, they did so by using a handle, but this had been removed for repair so Alexander had grasped the edge of the door to shut it.

Alexander sued her landlord, Freshwater, and its builder, Mr Place, who had decided to remove the handle as part of the repairs he was undertaking. She claimed that Freshwater was in breach of the Occupiers Liability Act 1957, under which landlords owe a duty of reasonable care to occupiers and visitors for the safety of parts of the building they are liable to maintain and repair. Alexander claimed Place was negligent in not fitting a temporary replacement while the permanent handle was being repaired.

Alexander argued that it was reasonably foreseeable that an occupier would trap their hand because of the removal of the handle and failure to fit a temporary replacement. She relied on the fact there was a clearly visible sign put up by a resident on the inside of the door instructing residents to pull it shut to ensure security was maintained.

Both defendants should have known the self-closing mechanism was defective.

Both Freshwater and Place should have seen this.

Both defendants denied the accident was reasonably foreseeable. Freshwater accepted that it knew the door was defective, but Place claimed he had never seen the sign on the door and was not to know that residents used the external handle to pull it shut. They both claimed Alexander was at fault.

The judge found both Freshwater and Place liable, but thought the main responsibility lay with the builder, as he decided on the works necessary. He should have seen the self-closing mechanism was not working and that there was an obvious risk of injury. He therefore apportioned 75% of the liability to Place and 25% to Freshwater. Place appealed.

The Court of Appeal agreed that a reasonable person in the place of the landlord or the builder would have foreseen a risk of injury resulting from having to grasp the edge of the door to pull it shut. The door was heavy and, as happened, a resident could get the timing wrong when removing their hand.

The court noted that both defendants knew it would take some time to replace the handle and both should have known the self-closing mechanism was defective and that residents had been pulling the door shut when leaving. Given the risk of injury, both should have ensured a temporary handle was fitted. The court thought the builder should have recommended this to begin with.

The court thought liability should be apportioned equally. Freshwater had the overall responsibility for the upkeep of the common parts and knew of the problem, but the builder had been responsible for the works and should have checked the door could be shut safely. It did not think it fair for the builder to have any greater responsibility than the landlord.

In addition, Alexander did not challenge the judge’s finding that her damages should be reduced by 25% to reflect her contributory negligence, as she had been distracted when closing the door and had not paid sufficient attention.

Summing up: Alexander v Freshwater Properties and Christopher Place

  • Alexander injured her hand when exiting her block of flats, as the door handle had been removed pending repairs. She sued her landlord and builder.
  • The defendants denied liability, but the judge found them responsible — the builder more so.
  • The defendants appealed and the Court of Appeal upheld the decision but apportioned liability equally between the two defendants.

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