Landlord Liable for Tenant’s Injury

Eales & Mackenzie Lawyers Melbourne

Article by Richard Mackenzie

The landlord owed a duty to the tenants to eliminate defects in the premises prior to the tenants moving in.

In June 1987 Mrs Harris asked her nine year old daughter Nicole to turn off an outside water tap which supplied a garden sprinkler. Nicole, who was in bare feet standing on wet grass, was electrocuted. She suffered severe brain damage and was left in a vegetative state.

The electrocution occurred due to the combination of faulty electrical wiring which existed at the time the premises were let and defective repair to an electric stove conducted by a contractor engaged by the landlord.

By her next friend, Nicole brought an action against an electrician who had repaired a stove in the house, the Electricity Board, and the Landlord who was the owner of the house. Northern Sandblasting Pty Ltd v Harris (unreported) 14 August 1997 F.C.97/034.

The trial judge found the electrician guilty of negligence and assessed damages at $1.2m. He acquitted the Board and the Landlord of negligence. However, on Appeal, the Court of Appeal, and then the High Court (by a majority of 4 to 3), held that the landlord was also liable.

The High Court held that the landlord was in a position to control the state in which the premises were let and therefore owed a duty to the tenants to eliminate defects in the premises prior to the tenants moving in. The court held that had the switch box been inspected before letting, the defect would have been detected.

This case emphasises the necessity of landlords carrying out detailed inspections before premises are let and maintaining careful records showing that they have met their obligations in regard to these inspections. Landlords who are unsure of their legal obligations under a particular lease should seek legal advice.

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