A friend in need – is a friend in Court

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Facts

Mr and Mrs Burgess owned a large house in Highgate.  They wanted to landscape their gardens and received a quotation for £150,000 from a well-established landscape gardener.  A family friend, Mrs Basia Lejonvarn, who was an architect, said that it should be possible to get that sort of work done for £130,000, which was Mr and Mrs Burgesses budget.

They asked her if they would help and she agreed to do so entirely on a friendly basis.  There was no contract and she received no fee.  Unfortunately she turned out to have no experience in landscape gardening, and recommended some building contractors who made a complete mess of the gardens and submitted large bills.  The Burgesses dismissed the builders, brought back the original landscape contractor, and sued Mrs Lejonvarn for the £265,000 they said they had wasted on the project.

Mrs Lejonvarn’s defence was that she had no contract with (her former) friends the Burgesses, and did not owe them a duty of care.

Held:

  1. Although there was no contract between the parties, Mrs Lejonvarn owed Mr and Mrs Burgess a duty of care. Her actions were to be evaluated by reference to the standards to be expected of the reasonable competent architect or project manager and on that criterion she had failed to act with reasonable skill and care.
  2. Mrs Lejonvarn was aware that the Burgesses budget was £130,000 and that they were relying upon her to act as project manager, a duty which she took on voluntarily but did not discharge properly. It was therefore ruled on a preliminary basis that Mrs Lejonvarn was liable to her friends for her negligent actions even though she had no contract with them and received no fee.

Comment

This is a very extreme case. Most professional people are all too aware of the dangers of making a casual comment which could be relied upon by a friend to their detriment but what Mrs Lejonvarn did went beyond that.  She took it upon herself to do a great deal of work which unfortunately went badly wrong. Clearly the Burgesses relied upon her advice and professional services, in circumstances in which it was abundantly apparent that if she did not do a good job her friends would be seriously disadvantaged, which in fact happened.   In those circumstances, she was unequivocally liable.  The moral is to follow the old Yorkshire dictum “never do owt for nowt”.

For more information, contact Robert Langley on 0191 211 7957 or at [email protected].