Personal liability in negligence of professional people

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Lejonvarn v Burgess [2017] BLR 277

Facts

Mrs Lejonvarn was an architect, who lived next door to Mr and Mrs Burgess in a pleasant area of London. She had worked for their company previously, and they had been friends for years. The Burgesses wanted to have their large garden landscaped and received a quotation of about £155,000 from a specialist contractor.

They thought it was too much so they asked Mrs Lejonvarn if she could help. She agreed to do so without asking for a fee. She produced various plans, obtained a price from a different contractor, and made site visits. Unfortunately the Burgesses became dissatisfied with that contractor, and eventually dismissed him and appointed the original specialist. They sued Mrs Lejonvarn for professional negligence. Her defence was that she had no contract with the Burgesses and owed them no duty in negligence.

Court of Appeal Held

There was no contract between the parties but where one party voluntarily tenders and provides skilled advice for services, in circumstances where she knows that advice will be relied upon by the other, then the question is whether she has voluntarily assumed liability. As a matter of fact, she did so.

Comment

1. Once a voluntary assumption of liability has been identified as a matter of fact, it is not necessary to consider whether imposing such liability is reasonable or fair. In other words, Mrs Lejonvarn’s protestations that she had got no fee for her services was not sufficient to avoid her being held liable for the consequences of her actions.

2. Many professional people still expose themselves to the risk of professional negligence claims, which may well be uninsured, when they give advice or do work outside the scope of their normal working conditions, not realising the risk they run.

3. Not all advice given casually over the garden fence will give rise to negligence duty but where the relationship with the parties is close enough (and here it was held to be “akin to a contract”, then a relationship could well be identified of such “proximity” as to justify a finding of a professional duty of care in respect of free advice or free services.

For more specialist legal advice call Keith Bishop, Head of Construction & Engineering, on
0191 211 7983 or email [email protected].