That loose tile, rotting deck or wobbly ceiling fan could result in you getting sued if someone visiting your home gets injured because you failed to carry out adequate maintenance.
The problem with dangerous areas is that while the homeowner may be fully aware of the trouble spot, anyone visiting the home may not be as informed and homeowners may get sued if injuries occur.
A case discussed in a recent newsletter published by attorneys Smith Tabata Buchanan Boyes (STBB) highlights the legalities around this issue. The case - Muller vs Lawrence - involved an injury sustained due to a loose tile at the top of a stairwell. Interestingly, although the court found that the homeowner wasn't liable in this particular instance, it wasn't due to the fact that the homeowner wasn't negligent, but rather that the applicant wasn't able to prove that she fell because of the loose tile (it had been raining and there were conflicting reports as to how the incident occurred, with the hospital records stating she had fallen up the stairs and the applicant noting she had fallen down). The applicant also couldn't prove that the homeowner was aware of the broken tile and therefore he could not be held liable.
The outcome could have been very different had it been proved the homeowner was aware of a problem that could possibly lead to injury. In this instance the applicant was seriously injured and was suing for R750 000. Before you argue that your insurance would cover you in the event of something like this happening, it's unlikely that your insurer would pay out if it found that you as the homeowner were aware of the problem, but neglected to rectify it. In other words, read the wording of your insurance policy with care.
Generally speaking the only winners in these situations are the lawyers and the best way to avoid high legal costs is to keep your home in tip top shape.
Obviously accidents can happen regardless of how careful the homeowner is, but it may be a good idea to conduct regular inspections and fix any potential hazards before they become major problems.
Common problem areas include:
Wooden decks. Untreated or old decks that are not maintained can rot. Unfortunately, the damage may not be visible from the top of the structure and regular inspections should be undertaken to assess if there is any damage underneath the structure.
Uneven paving or potholes in the tarred driveway. Replace or relay any paving stones that could lead to injury. Repair holes in the driveway.
Keep an eye on any large trees in the garden and prune any dead limbs.
Get on the roof and reattach loose tiles.
Regularly inspect stairways to ensure there are no loose tiles. Likewise, your carpeted stairs should be wrinkle and fray free.
Don't wait for an accident to happen - replace slippery tiles around a pool area with a nonslip variety.
Inspect light fittings to ensure they are firmly fixed to the ceiling. Replace old, rusty fittings if necessary.
Regularly inspect your ceiling fans – ensure the blades are balanced properly. Check the ceiling fitting to ensure the appliance is firmly affixed and replace rusty blades.
Ensure that all electrical items are earthed and that there are no exposed wires. Conduct regular inspections on items such as washing machines and dishwashers and repair any leaks.
Burying your head in the sand and adopting an ‘it will never happen to me’ approach could end up costing you a friendship, not to mention a small fortune in legal fees. Remember negligent homeowners found wanting by the courts could also be held liable for the complainant’s legal costs as well as the amount claimed for injuries.
The lesson in all of this? Get your home in apple pie order and keep yourself, your family and your friends safe.