Oxford don wins nearly £1 million damages in property negligence case

sold sign displayed outside a terraced house in harringay ladder area, london


An Oxford professor and his wife have been handed nearly £1 million in damages after they won their negligence claim against a law firm which failed to register a restriction on the sale of his mother’s property.

Professor Christopher Gosden and Professor Jane Kaye won their case on appeal in early 2020 (See: Brunel News, April 2020) – but the case was referred back to the High Court to assess the damages. His Honour Judge Pelling has now awarded the couple £985,000 in an unusual ruling which departs from the default position for assessing the date of loss.

The negligence case related to the sale of the London property of Professor Gosden’s mother, Dr Jean Weddell, who wanted to pass her property to Professor Gosden on her death in a tax efficient manner. Law firm Halliwell Landau set up an estate protection scheme for her in 2003 but negligently failed to register a restriction on the property’s sale at the Land Registry.

Later in 2007, Dr Weddell wrote her son out of her will when she entered a civil partnership with barrister, Wendy Wood.  When Dr Weddell died in 2013, Professor Gosden discovered the house had been sold in 2010 without his knowledge and in breach of the terms of the estate protection scheme.  He subsequently won a negligence claim against Halliwell Landau.

In order to assess damages, HHJ Pelling needed to establish the date when Professor Gosden and Professor Kaye’s suffered their loss. The parties could not agree the date that the loss had crystalised, and in the context that the court can depart from the established default position on crystalisation of loss if necessary to properly compensate claimants.

The law firm, Halliwell Landau, claimed that the loss occurred on the date the property was sold in 2010, when it was worth £785,000.  However Professor Gosden and Professor Kaye argued that their loss occurred in 2013 when Dr Weddell died.  At this point the property was worth £875,000.

The judge backed the claimants’ position and awarded them £985,000.  Damages were assessed as the value on the property in 2013, plus interest at 3.5% above base rate.  The judge deducted £125,000 from this figure to cover the amount of inheritance tax he calculated the couple would have had to have paid. HHJ Pelling said the estate protection scheme was meant to take effect from the date of Dr Weddell’s death, so this was the date when the true loss occurred.

James Burgoyne of Brunel Professions said the case shows when the courts can depart from the default position and award higher damages.  “It is interesting from a professional indemnity perspective as it sheds light on the date from which damages are to be assessed.  It also provides a good example of the different limitation periods which can apply as in this case the error was made in 2003, and the problem discovered by the claimant in 2015.

Reports about the case have been published by Browne Jacobson, Legal Futures and Mail Online.

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