Unlocked door opens architect to £6.5m fire claim

keys in the keyhole

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An architect, who failed to lock a door in a disused cinema, must face trial for £6.5m damages after an intruder entered the premises and set fire to the building.

A potential purchaser of the old cinema appointed the architect to inspect the premises. He visited the property with the marketing agent who showed him how to unlock the doors and operate the intruder alarm. The agent warned the architect to secure the entrance from the inside when he was in the building otherwise it was unlocked and accessible by anyone on the street.

On a subsequent visit, the architect was not accompanied by the agent and he failed to lock the street door whilst he was inside. When he left, he set the alarm and locked the door. Unbeknown to him an intruder had slipped into the building during his visit and later set fire to the property, causing extensive damage.

The owner Rushbond plc claimed damages, but in the Technology and Construction Court, the judge struck out the claim. She ruled that the architect did not owe a duty of care to the owner, as Rushbond was not his client and that the claim related to a ‘pure omission’. In common law ‘pure omission’ does not usually expose a person to liability for negligence.

The Court of Appeal overturned the lower court’s strike out order and sent the case to trial. The judges unanimously decided it was arguably not a ‘pure omission’ case. Lord Justice Coulson said it was “fanciful to suggest that, whilst the sole occupant of the property, trusted with the keys, the respondent owed no duty of care to the claimant to take reasonable precautions as to security”. The extent to which the architectural firm is liable for damages will be decided at a full trial.

James Burgoyne of Brunel says: “The lesson of this case is simple whatever is decided at trial. If you are a professional attending a property, take great care to look after it carefully.”

Reports about the case have been published by BDB Pitmans, 4 New Square and Stevens & Bolton.

Professionalindemnity.com is owned by Brunel Professions, which is a leading professional indemnity insurance broker in the UK. Click here to get a quote or call 0345 450 1074 to speak to a broker.

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