By Sarah Macky, Heaney and Partners.
A decision delivered by the High Court in March of this year is a helpful reminder of the challenges that can be experienced for councils in defending building defects claims against them.
The case of Johns v Hamilton City Council & Ors (CIV-2019-419-222) proceeded to trial primarily because it was not able to be resolved satisfactorily beforehand by way of settlement. This was due to the variety and number of construction parties involved in the claim and in a sister proceeding, Hamilton City Council v Parrot & Ors (CIV-2020-419-153).
The plaintiff, Johns in the first proceeding, sued the council and the developer/builder, Davey. In turn, the council and Davey joined various construction parties as third parties. In addition, the council issued a
separate proceeding claiming against some of those same third parties and additional construction parties.
In 2008, Davey built two houses. One for him to live in and the other to be sold, which was purchased by Johns in 2009.
In 2014, Johns became aware that the deck was leaking and engaged a builder to repair it. In 2016, he applied to the Weathertight Homes Resolution Service for an assessor’s report. After receiving the assessor’s report Johns carried out a full reclad of the property. He then sold the property in May 2019 and issued the high court proceeding seeking the cost of the actual repairs in damages.
In terms of timing, which is not unusual with building defect claims against councils, preparation of the evidence for the trial and the trial itself took place some 13 years after the construction of the property.
This inevitably meant that council officers involved would not have had any tangible recollection of their involvement in inspecting during construction given the amount of time that had passed.
Here, the council inspectors involved during construction did not give evidence at the trial. As a result, the documentary record on the council’s file became the most reliable record of the council’s inspection process.
The case is a good reminder that it is always important that council inspectors actually give evidence in court even if their recollection is sketchy. Otherwise, the court is able to take the inference from their absence at trial that the evidence they would have given would not assist the council’s defence to the claim. This was noted by the trial judge in this decision.
A further aspect of the decision highlights that the council’s inspection processes are often looked at under a microscope, sometimes with the benefit of hindsight that can result in heavy criticism by the court.
In this decision, aspects of the construction which would be the type of issues that would ordinarily be detected by a site supervisor or project manager were found to have been missed by council inspectors. The council subsequently was found to have a liability for these less obvious defects. An example is there having been no provision to seal or flash rivet penetrations through the roof metal parapet flashing.
In respect of some of the defects, the court formed the view that council inspectors could not be satisfied that they had reasonable grounds to conclude the building work had been constructed correctly.
Absent evidence of enquiry of the construction parties involved, the court concluded the council inspectors ought to have required that the areas of construction work be deconstructed in order to satisfy themselves that the building work was code compliant.
While this claim is a good reminder of the high threshold that the courts sometimes place upon the quality of councils’ inspection processes there was no alternative other than to proceed to trial in this case. This was required to establish the liability of the construction parties who would not meaningfully participate in attempts to resolve the claim prior to trial.
The apportionment of liability to the council was set at 25 percent, which was a little higher than the usual 20 percent because the council had settled prior to trial with one construction party.
Despite the liability findings, the council was successful as it achieved an award of 75 percent of the claim against Davey and the other construction parties.