Whenever you work on a building, a duty of care is almost certainly created. The extent of that duty and who you owe it to depends on many circumstances – your contract, statute and common law. You need to be aware of the impact on you of the Defective Premises Act 1972 (DPA) if you are working on “dwellings” i.e. domestic buildings in England or Wales.
The DPA doesn’t apply to buildings used for commercial purposes but it would apply to commercial landlords letting properties for the purpose of tenants living in them. The DPA is a short but powerful read! It packs a punch.
Your duty of care
The DPA imposes a duty on you to “see that the work which he takes on is done in workmanlike or, as the case may be, professional manner, with proper materials and so that as regards that work the dwelling will be fit for habitation when completed”. It currently covers “construction, repair, maintenance or demolition or any other work done on or in relation to the premises…”. However, note that the new Building Safety Bill (BSB), which is expected to receive Royal Assent later this year, will extend the remit of the DPA to include ‘refurbishment’ works. You owe that duty of care to anyone employing you and also to anyone who acquires an interest in the building (that would include, for example, a landlord, a tenant or someone providing the funding). That means anyone with an interest in the dwelling can potentially sue you.
If you are contracted to do work for an employer, and contractually you are obliged to do it in accordance with the employer’s instructions and you follow them, that discharges your duty of care except where you owe a duty to your employer to warn him of any defects in the instructions and you fail to do so. So it is not good enough to say: “I did what I was told to do”. If you know something is wrong with what you are being told to do you must tell your employer that his instructions are defective. And please do it in writing so there is a record that you have done so.
So, there is an obligation on the landlord to make the building ‘fit for habitation’ – that means the tenant must be able to live in it. What might prevent a property from being fit for occupation will depend on the circumstances but it might be, for example, that there are structural, electrical or gas risks. Health and safety are usually the ‘big ticket’ items. Claims against a landlord in these circumstances are almost inevitable.