With friends like these: couple sue over garden redesign

Posted on 2 March 2016

With friends like these: couple sue over garden redesign

An occupational hazard of being a "professional" is being asked for free advice by friends and family. Whether it is over the dinner party table or at the school gate, doctors can expect to be shown suspect body parts and lawyers can expect to be asked to opine on whether someone can get an injunction against their neighbours for letting the leylandii get overgrown.

A recent case in the High Court is a cautionary tale for professionals in such circumstances.  In this case, the professional was a consultant specialising in architecture and planning.  Her friends asked her to help with their £150,000 landscape gardening project.  She agreed to help, for free.

Sadly, things did not go to plan.  The relationship between the (now former) friends broke down and the homeowners sued the consultant, claiming for the cost of work necessary to put things right.  The judge decided that even though she wasn't being paid for her work, she owed a duty of care that covered several design and project management services. He also decided that a professional designer can owe a duty of care in respect of what lawyers call "pure economic loss" on a construction project, meaning that she was liable not only in relation to the advice she gave, but also for other financial losses that she caused.  The claim against her was for £265,000.

The case was out of the ordinary, in that her involvement was (in the judge's words) "not a piece of brief ad hoc advice of the type occasionally proffered by professional people in a less formal context".  She had become involved in the hope that she would be able to charge for other services later during the project.   

The case is nevertheless a useful reminder that professionals can be liable even if they are not being paid.  Indeed, the result would have been the same if the professional was acting pro bono.

There are perhaps three lessons that come out of this decision.  First, make clear the scope of the responsibility you are undertaking if you are asked for your view in an informal setting – don't assume that you are not responsible for your advice.  Second, if in doubt, get your friend/client to sign a contract, with the same terms that you would expect a stranger to agree to.  Finally, pick carefully the friends with whom you mix business and pleasure! 

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