Hannon v Hillingdon Homes Ltd [2012] EWHC 1437 (QB) is a personal injury claim which arises out of an injury that the claimant Mr Patrick Hannon (“Mr Hannon”) suffered when he fell whilst carrying out maintenance work to the central heating and hot water boiler at a house owned by the defendant Hillingdon Homes Limited (“Hillingdon”) (a cooprate vehicle of London Borough of Hillingdon (“LBH”)). T Brown Group Ltd (“TBG”) was under long term contract to carry out maintenance work for LBH and Hillingdon. Mr Hannon was under contract to TBG.

Background

TBG instructed Mr Hannon to attend the 50 Hoppner Drive, Hayes, Middlesex to power flush the central heating, working as usual on his own. Mr Hannon arrived at the property on 18 February 2008. The property is a two-storey property. The boiler was located on the ground floor and the hot water cylinder on the upper floor and the two floors were connected by a flight of stairs which ran from a landing on the upper floor to the open plan lower floor. The staircase formed part of the lower floor and was constructed into the side wall of the open plan ground floor room. The free side of the staircase had been constructed with a bannisters consisting of a newel post and spindles located in each stair tread and joined at their head by the bannisters rail. One obvious function of this bannisters arrangement was to act as a safety device to protect anyone going up or down stairs from falling, sliding or slipping off the edge of the staircase into the ground floor living area and to provide a support to help arrest someone who would otherwise fall down the staircase. Unfortunately for Mr Hannon, the bannisters on the open side of the staircase had been removed in their entirety some twenty years earlier leaving an open staircase on that side. A bannisters, without spindles or other supports, had been fixed into the wall on the closed side of the staircase. The removal of the bannisters on the open side had, no doubt, been done for aesthetic reasons to enhance the open aspect of the ground floor.

The power flushing work that Mr Hannon had been sent to undertake involved him moving on occasion from the boiler downstairs to the cylinder upstairs and vice versa. He had been working upstairs for some time with the boiler working downstairs. Whilst working, he heard a loud noise downstairs which sounded like a possible problem with the boiler. He understandably moved as rapidly as possible down the stairs and, whilst descending, his foot slipped on approximately the third stair up from the ground towards and over the unprotected edge of the step it was on. He was, as instructed, wearing his working boots. He instinctively reached for the handrail to check himself and, before he could take avoiding action, he toppled over sideways into the open plan area beside the staircase.

Mr Hannon fell heavily and awkwardly and seriously injured his left ankle. Had the bannisters been in place, Mr Hannon would have checked himself without difficulty and would not have fallen or injured himself.

Mr Hannon brought the claim against Hillingdon as the owner of the property and as the landlord with repairing obligations for the structure of the property. The claim was brought in negligence and under the Defective Premises Act 1972 (“DPA”).

There were three issues identified as requiring to be resolved namely:

  1. Whether the accident was caused by the absence of a bannisters or by Mr Hannon’s error in undertaking work at the property in its then condition
  2. Whether any liability that can be proved should be discounted as a result of Mr Hannon’s contributory negligence and
  3. Whether Hillingdon is liable to Mr Hannon under the DPA.

Issue 1 – The cause of Mr Hannon’s injury

It was argued by the defendant landlord that Mr Hannon should have refused to carry out the works until a bannister had been fitted or at least carry out a risk assessment before continuing to which Mr Hannon replied:

“I know that it has been suggested that I should have refused to do the job as soon as I saw that there was no bannisters rail. This is just nonsense, presumably suggested by someone who has no experience of working in the real world. I had been expected to work in much worse conditions than this before. The pressure was to get the job done. I could hardly walk out and refuse to come back until someone had built a new staircase – what was the tenant to do in the meantime – light a fire?”

It was accepted that that the bannisters in question were removed by the existing tenant, Ms Debbie Morrison, soon after she had taken on the tenancy and had moved into the property in 1991. During the 20 years of the tenancy, many visits and inspections had been carried out not just by various heating engineers (the heating was a continuing problem) but also visits were made by direct employees of LBH. None of the visits identified a problem with the bannister.

It was held on issue 1:

… it was not unsafe for Mr Hannon to embark upon the flushing operation that was needed to enable the central heating to be reinstated in the property. A lawful visitor to a domestic property is entitled to use that property unless it has become so structurally unsafe that it is a dangerous structure into which no-one including the owner may lawfully venture… Mr Hannon’s injury was not caused by his unreasonable use of the stairs, it was caused by the absence of bannisters on the crucial open side of the staircase.

Issue 2 – Contributory Negligence

It was contended that Mr Hannon had failed to show reasonable skill and care or to exercise reasonable caution in the way that he rushed down the stairs so that he slipped or slid.

…Mr Hannon was undertaking potentially hazardous maintenance work on the boiler which was alight, had possibly been subject to an explosion and was in need of urgent attention. He was on the first floor and needed to get to the boiler on the ground floor as quickly as reasonably possible. There is no suggestion that he attempted to descend in an unduly risky or foolhardy manner and the slip he experienced was one that could well have happened even if he had not been descending the stairs in haste. Mr Hannon was, therefore, not guilty of any unreasonable lack of care for his own safety, his problem was that there was an absence of a structural feature whose purpose was to provide safety and protection from the very kind of accident that befell him in slipping on the staircase.

Issue 3 – Liability of Hillingdon

It was accepted that Hillingdon was the “landlord” for the purpose of section 4 Defective Premises Act 1972 which provides that the landlord owes to all persons who might reasonably be expected to be affected by defects in the property a duty to take all such care as is reasonable in all the circumstances to see that they are reasonably safe from personal injury [s.4(1)]. The duty is owed if the landlord knows (whether as the result of being notified by the tenant or otherwise) or if he ought in all the circumstances to have known of the relevant defect [s.4(2)].

After much consideration including reference to the Building Regulations, it was held that the bannister was an integral part of the staircase and therefore in turn part of the structure of the premises. It was further held therefore that the bannister fell under the landlords repairing obligations.

It was also held that the moment the tenant removed the bannister, the lack of a bannister became a “relevant defect” for the purpose of section 4 Defective Premises Act 1972. This was a continuing defect because of the failure or omission of the party responsible for the repairs of the structure (Hillingdon) to replace it or to insist on its replacement by the tenant. It was held that it makes no difference to the existence of liability that the tenant caused the relevant state of disrepair in circumstances in which her act in creating that state was itself a breach by her of the terms of the lease because Hillingdon could require the tenant to undertake the repair or, if the tenant did not, could enter and repair the bannisters itself and then charge the tenant the reasonable cost of undertaking those repairs.

In respect of the point that Hillingdon claimed they had not received notice of the defect, as mentioned earlier, direct employees of the landlord had, on occasion, visited the premises including only a few days before Mr Hannon attended and was injured. However, a point for landlords to be aware of – it was further held:

… in any event, section 4(4) of the DPA gave rise to a liability where, as in this case, the landlord had an express right to enter the property to carry out repairs and a further express right to visit and inspect the property for the purpose of seeing whether it should exercise that right. That liability arose even if Hillingdon had not in fact exercised its right to repair and to inspect since the DPA liability arose “from the time when by notice or otherwise [it] can put [itself] in a position to exercise” the right to inspect and carry out repairs. Thus, since Hillingdon could have inspected and repaired the bannisters, and could have done so at any time over the period of the tenancy, it was liable for not carrying out those repairs even if it did not have notice of the defect.

This is slightly scary if true because I fail to see how a person who chooses to leave tenants alone and not inspect should be penalised for such an action. I’m not entirely sure whether that final comment is entirely accurate. I agree that in this case, on balance, that the landlord was liable because the landlord clearly knew or ought to have known about the defect as employees had visited the premises on a number of occasions. However, if they hadn’t done and the landlord truly didn’t know the bannister was missing, I think this would be a potential defence even under DPA. This case was High Court so is binding authority for now.

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