An engineering firm has narrowly escaped substantial liability for a serious flood that struck a newly completed block of prestige central London flats after a high-speed surge through its cold water supply caused pipes to dramatically burst asunder.
The freeholders of the 206-apartment block had only just taken possession when an unscheduled shutdown of booster pumps and the ensuing partial drain down of the water system caused a ‘hammer’ event, with water travelling through pipes at close to the speed of sound. Copper pipes in two apartments burst under the strain, causing huge amounts of damage.
It was a notable feature of the case that not one of the leading building services practices in the UK had identified what happened as a potential problem before the flood occurred in 2005. In those circumstances, the engineering firm, which designed the block’s cold water system, argued that it had faithfully followed the then current industry practice and could not be held negligent.
The court noted that it had, at first, been attracted by that ‘formidable’ argument. However, it ultimately ruled on the evidence that competent engineers in the firm’s position should have foreseen the problem and taken steps to deal with it.
In dismissing the freeholders’ claim, however, the court found that, even had the engineers advised the installation of an anti-surge valve as they should have done, there was no evidence that such advice would have been accepted. It was in any event unlikely that the valve could have been installed in time to prevent the catastrophic failure in the system that occurred.