A firm of structural engineers has been found not liable after a couple’s home collapsed as a result of a botched basement extension. The case provides useful legal guidance about engineers’ design obligations and their duty to warn about potential dangers during construction.

Edward Goldswain and Jacqueline Hale appointed Beltec, a firm of structural engineers, to design a new basement at their North London flat. The couple then appointed AIMS Plumbing and Building Services Limited to carry out the works.

Once work had started, AIMS appointed Beltec to inspect the first pin being cast in the new basement. Beltec’s engineer, Mr Pistilli, visited the site and told AIMS that the work had not followed Beltec’s design and said that it should be re-done.

Shortly after Mr Goldswain and Miss Hale began to notice cracks at the Property. The first floor tenants also raised concerns about further cracks that were appearing. Following a period of very heavy rain, the cracks widened seriously and the building was evacuated. The side wall then collapsed and the property was subsequently demolished by Barnet Council.

Mr Goldswain and Miss Hale’s home insurers refused to pay for the damage. The couple took Beltec and AIMS to court, claiming the costs of reinstating the property and an indemnity against claims from the other tenants and neighbours. AIMS did not file a defence and the judge ordered them to pay £287,754 in damages. However AIMS had gone into liquidation and was not expected to be able to pay.

The claimants’ case against Beltec was that it had failed in its duty of care when it designed the basement without specifying the temporary propping to be used during construction. In its designs, Beltec had specified that “all propping and temporary works” were to be “to the contractor’s design and method statement”. The judge, Mr Justice Akenheath accepted that this was normal practice and that Beltec had no responsibility for the contractor’s failure to properly support the property during construction.

Mr Goldswain and Miss Hale also claimed that Beltec had failed to warn them that the work was sub-standard after Mr Pistilli’s site visit. Mr Justice Akenheath decided that there was no evidence that AIMS was out of its depth when Mr Pistilli visited the property. He concluded that Beltec had no responsibility to warn the claimants about possible future dangers which were not evident at the time of the visit. He also found that Beltec had no on-going obligations to supervise the project under the terms of its retainer.

“This case, whilst troubling in its outcome for the owners of the property, will be reassuring to construction professionals and their insurers,” said James Burgoyne, Director – Claims & Technical, Brunel Professional Risks. “It shows that a professional firm is entitled to assume that a contractor is competent and does not have to include in its designs information the contractor should already know. The case also shows that a professional only has a duty to warn when there is an obvious and clear danger, rather than the mere possibility of danger.”

Details of the case have been published by law firms Bond Dickinson and DWF. It was also reported in the national press by The Mirror newspaper.