Property owners (the claimants) who paid over £16 million to acquire a historic office building have failed to convince the High Court that a firm of surveyors (the firm) was negligent in failing to identify serious structural defects in the property prior to the purchase.
The substantial former industrial building was the largest mill in Britain when it was built in the early 19th Century by an industrialist who was one of the first millionaires of the industrial revolution. The claimants bought the property in 2003 after instructing the firm to perform a structural survey.
By June 2005, the weight of the structure had caused substantial cracks to appear in three of the brick piers that supported it. A crack in one of the piers had increased by more than an inch since the purchase and fissures in the others were widening. Urgent remedial work eventually had to be carried out at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
In seeking compensation, the claimants argued that the firm had negligently failed to carry out appropriate stress calculations that would have revealed at least a real risk that the piers were suffering from compression failure before the purchase. However, in dismissing the claim, the Court ruled that the firm had exercised all the reasonable care and skill that could have been expected of it.
The Court noted that, when the firm inspected the building in 2003, the cracking problem was localised to just a few square feet of brickwork on three of 14 piers supporting the building and that there was 'no hint' of anything that might cause compression failure.
Observing that the building had stood for more than 170 years without obvious signs of structural failure, the Court found that the surveyor who carried out the inspection had reached the 'very reasonable conclusion' that the minor visible cracking was probably due to frost damage. Compression failure was a comparatively rare problem and, after spotting the cracks, the surveyor had ‘perfectly sensibly’ recommended that they be regularly monitored.