A catastrophic flood that caused £4.75 million of damage to a newly completed block of flats has led to the exposure of a ‘comically inept’ muddle between various firms engaged in a construction project which was described by a judge as ‘death by sub-contracting’.
Not long after the block’s completion, water was seen to be cascading off balconies and down the sides of the building. The property’s owner was obliged to deal with multiple claims by tenants and the cost of remedial works and other losses had been agreed at £4.75 million.
The owner took legal action against mechanical and electrical sub-contractors who had worked on the project, as well as the designers of the building’s mechanical systems. The Court noted that a plethora of sub-contractors, sub-sub contractors and even sub-sub-sub contractors had been engaged in the work.
Observing that the facts of the case seemed ‘redolent of another age’, the Court noted that the ‘muddled’ contractual arrangements had resulted in no one party having overall responsibility for the building’s cold water system. All involved were ‘so intent on avoiding responsibility for anything meaningful’ that the occurrence of the flood was ‘perhaps less surprising than it might otherwise appear’.
In apportioning legal liability for the losses sustained, the Court found that the root cause of the flood was a single plastic nut which had been over-tightened using metal tools. That gave rise to a chain reaction in which water tanks suddenly emptied, causing a vacuum to develop, ultimately resulting in a ‘water hammer event’.
There were also flaws in design and poor workmanship that had affected non-return and isolation valves that should have prevented the disaster. The Court’s findings meant that the lion’s share of liability ultimately fell upon a labour-only mechanical sub-sub-sub contractor who had worked on the project.