In giving important guidance on the vexed issue of duties owed by professionals to those who are not their clients and to the public in general, the Court of Appeal has cleared surveyors of all responsibility for a freak accident in which a shop fascia detached and fell onto the pavement, causing serious injury to passing pedestrians.
Victims of the accident had issued proceedings against the shop’s tenant and various others, including the company that had supplied and fitted the shop’s sign, another which had carried out a remodelling of the shop’s front and a leading firm of surveyors who had, at the tenant’s request, inspected the awning over the shop three months prior to the accident.
The shop’s tenant had ultimately submitted to judgment in favour of the injured pedestrians. The company which carried out the remodelling also conceded liability but launched contribution proceedings against the surveyors. Following a trial, the company was found 89 per cent liable for the accident and the surveyors 11 per cent.
Allowing the surveyors’ appeal against that decision, the Court ruled that they owed no duty of care either to the pedestrians or to the shop’s tenant. Foreseeability of harm was not, by itself, enough to establish liability and the Court found that the ‘degree of proximity’ between the surveyors and the pedestrians was not sufficient to give rise to any legal responsibility between the former and the latter.
The role in which the surveyors were acting when they inspected the awning was of critical importance and the Court observed that they had performed the task as agents for the landlord and not on instructions from the shop’s tenant. The surveyors’ involvement had ‘nothing to do with the safety of passers-by’ and their role was simply to determine whether the shop front had sustained damage for which their client – the landlord – might be liable.
The nature of the ‘adversarial’ relationship between the shop’s tenant and the surveyors – the former having complained to the landlord about the condition of the awning – was also ‘quite inconsistent with an assumption of responsibility’ by the surveyors towards the tenant. It was no part of the surveyors’ duty to advise the tenant as to the nature of the damage and the measures needed to put it right.