When their house collapsed in November 2012, Mr Goldswain and Ms Hale were left in a terrible position. It was clear that the collapse had been caused by the failure of subcontractors to underpin basement works correctly. However, the subcontractor had gone into liquidation and worse still, the insurers declined cover, on the basis that the cause of the collapse was inadequate construction, which was not an insured risk.
So who could Mr Goldswain and Ms Hale look to, to seek redress for this disaster? In the event, they decided to make a claim against the only other party involved in the basement works, the consulting engineers, Beltec Limited (Beltec).
Mr Goldswain and Ms Hale had wanted to convert the basement to provide two bedrooms and a bathroom. They instructed Beltec to undertake the structural design of the works. Part of Beltec’s design was that the basement walls should be underpinned, and that the underpinning should be undertaken in a strict sequence. Mr Goldswain and Ms Hale instructed AIMS Plumbing and Building Services (AIMS) to construct the basement works to Beltec’s design.
AIMS started work on the basement. Although Beltec was not instructed to supervise the works, it carried out a one-off inspection at the beginning of the works, inspecting the initial pin that had been constructed by AIMS. On inspection, Beltec saw that the underpinning had not been done in accordance with its design, and its representative explained to AIMS how it should be done, and re-issued the relevant drawings to them. Beltec did not carry out any further inspections after this, as it was not instructed to do so.
A month after completion, serious cracking began to appear in the house. AIMS attempted to halt this by putting in braces but on 24 November 2012 the house collapsed in on itself. Mr Goldswain and Ms Hale only just managed to evacuate themselves in time.
Since Mr Goldswain and Ms Hale had no recourse to their insurers, and because AIMS was insolvent, their only option was to look to Beltec for compensation. They based their claim against Beltec on the principle that a consulting engineer has a duty to warn the employer or the contractors, if it sees the contractors heading into danger, and there is prospect that damage to property is likely to result.
Unfortunately for Mr Goldswain and Ms Hale the Technology and Construction Court* decided that Beltec did not have such a duty to warn, and was therefore not liable to Mr Goldswain and Ms Hale for the damage. This was because:
- Beltec was employed to design the basement works, but not to supervise them. At the point of Beltec’s inspection, it was not clear that AIMS was heading into danger, where damage to the property was likely to result.
- It was not negligent of Beltec to give the relevant drawings to AIMS and assume that they would follow them.
Although in this instance the claim against the consulting engineers failed, engineers (and any other consultants with responsibility for design) should be aware that if they do see contractors heading into danger by diverging from their design, they must warn the employer and the contractor in writing.
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*Edward Goldswain and Jacqueline Hale v Beltec Limited and AIMS Plumbing and Building Services  EWHC 556(TCC)