Where there’s blame, there is not always a claim

If someone you knew had fallen down the stairs and suffered serious injury as a result of a missing handrail, whose fault do you think it would be?

You might think the blame lies at the door of the building owner or leaseholder, because it would be their responsibility to ensure the stairs were fit for use. However, according to one recent case, Dodd v Raeburn Estates [2016] EWHC 262, you might be surprised to learn that this isn’t always the case.

Mrs Dodd’s husband suffered a fatal accident from a fall down the stairs and took the freeholder of the building, Raebarn Estates Ltd., and the head lessee to Court for negligence. The claimant, Mrs Dodd, claimed that her husband’s fall and subsequent death was as a result of steep steps that were not accompanied by a handrail.

During the investigation, it became apparent that the head lessee had undertaken renovation works, including the replacement of the staircase in question. The plans showed the staircase as having a handrail but when built, the staircase did not have a handrail. Also, the stairs were steeper than shown on the plans. This was accepted by experts to be a breach of building regulations.

Under section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972 (DPA), freehold owners are potentially liable for defects arising out of a lease as a statutory duty of care is imposed on the landlord where they have duty to repair, or right of entry to carry out repair. On the surface it would appear that Mrs Dodd would be successful in her claim against the freeholder under that imposed duty.

However, during the investigation it became apparent that even though Raebarn (the freeholder) was not liable for the repair, under the head lease, it had a right of entry to repair. Mrs Dodd sought to rely on this obligation to claim that Raebarn was liable for the injuries sustained by her husband. Under section 4 of the DPA, before an obligation to repair arises, the property must be in disrepair. The Court of Appeal held that the removal of the staircase did not amount to a breach of the repair covenant in the head lease, as the repairs were not necessary and so the right of entry to repair was not required.

It was also held that a duty to repair could not be equated with a duty to put into a safe condition. Despite the staircase being steep with no handrail (which probably made it unsafe), it was not in disrepair, and Raebarn was not liable to Mrs Dodd.

It just goes to show that sometimes, an injury may be just a tragic accident rather than as a result of any specific fault or blame – and not all cases can lead to a claim.

If you have any questions relating to your duties as a landlord and your responsibility for repair, contact the Dispute Resolution team at Downs Solicitors to see how we can help.