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25th January 2013

Landlord's liability for injury caused by tenant's alterations

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A recent High Court case, Hannon v Hillingdon Homes Limited (2012), has highlighted how important it is for landlords to regularly check their properties for defects and unauthorised alterations by tenants.

 The case concerned a landlord’s liability under the Defective Premises Act 1972 ("DPA"). Under the DPA a landlord owes a duty of care to anyone who might be affected by certain defects in the state of the premises if the lease contains one of the following provisions:

1. A requirement that the landlord maintains or repairs the premises. In this case, the duty arises when the landlord has been given notice of the defect.

2. An express or implied right for the landlord to enter the premises to carry out maintenance or repair. In this case, the duty arises when the landlord is or could put itself in a position to exercise this right.

Hillingdon Homes leased a residential property to a tenant. Under the lease Hillingdon was required to keep the property’s structure and exterior in repair and proper working order. In 2008, Mr Hannon, a heating engineer employed by one of Hillingdon’s contractors, fell from a staircase at the property and was injured. Some time previously, the tenant had removed the banister from the staircase, without permission. It was established in evidence that Mr Hannon’s injury was caused by the absence of the banister.

The Court held that the landlord was liable for Mr Hannon’s injuries pursuant to the DPA. It concluded that the banister was part of the house’s structure and so was covered by Hillingdon’s repairing obligation. It considered that it was irrelevant that the tenant had removed the banister as neither Hillingdon’s repairing obligation nor the DPA duty of care excluded liability for disrepair caused by the tenant.

The Court considered whether Hillingdon had notice of the defect and concluded that visits to the property by employees of Hillingdon or its independent contractors had amounted to the tenant giving Hillingdon notice. Each visit constituted notice to the landlord of the defect because the absence of the banister was obvious. In any event, Hillingdon’s duty pursuant to the DPA arose not only because of its repairing obligation but also because it had a right under the lease to enter the premises to carry out repairs and inspections. Hillingdon was therefore liable even if it did not have notice of the defect.

This case could have serious implications for landlords. They should be aware that they could be liable for injuries caused by tenants’ alterations, even those alterations in breach of the lease. Landlords should review their leases and procedures to ensure that their properties are regularly inspected and that their agents report any defects promptly.

For further information, please contact Eleanor Rutherford on 01604 233233 or email eleanorrutherford@hewitsons.com.