21 November 2017
A | A

Tort feed-image    Building & construction feed-image   

Supreme Court Note: Ng Huat Seng and another v Munib Mohammad Madni and another [2017] SGCA 58 (homeowners’ liability to neighbours for construction works undertaken on their property)

Supreme Court Note
07 Nov 2017

The Court of Appeal has made some observations on homeowners’ liability to neighbours for construction works undertaken on their property. In this case,the respondents hired a licensed contractor, Esthetix Design Pte Ltd (“Esthetix”), to demolish the existing house on their property and build another in its place. When demolition works were taking place, some falling debris damaged the neighbouring property, which belonged to the appellants. The appellants sued both Esthetix and the respondents in the tort of negligence. The district judge found against Esthetix but held that the respondents were not liable for the damage caused. The appellants pursued their claim against the respondents up to the Court of Appeal.

The appellants made submissions that related to three distinct heads of liability: (a) vicarious liability; (b) liability for the negligent selection of Esthetix; and (c) liability for the breach of a non-delegable duty of care. In the course of arguments, it was also suggested that the doctrine of ultra-hazardous acts, which imposed a non-delegable duty of care, should be subsumed under the general law of negligence (assuming it was recognised as part of the law in Singapore).

On the issue of vicarious liability, the Court held that the decisions by the UK Supreme Court in Various Claimants v Catholic Child Welfare Society and others [2012] 3 WLR 1319 and Cox v Ministry of Justice [2016] 2 WLR 806 did not present a new analytical framework for determining whether vicarious liability should be imposed. Their essential contribution was to fine-tune the existing framework underlying the doctrine so as to accommodate the more diverse range of relationships which might be encountered in today’s context. These relationships possessed the same fundamental qualities as those which inhered in employer-employee relationships, and thus made it appropriate for vicarious liability to be imposed. The cases did not suggest that vicarious liability could be imposed for the lapses committed by an independent contractor. On the facts, the respondents were not vicariously liable for the negligence of Esthetix as they had engaged Esthetix as an independent contractor to carry out demolition works on their property. Furthermore, there was nothing at all to suggest that the respondents, by virtue of their relationship with Esthetix, had either created or significantly increased the risk of the harm that ensued.

On the issue of negligent selection, the Court found that the respondents had not breached their duty of care in selecting Esthetix, a licensed contractor, to carry out the demolition works.

On the issue of non-delegable duties, the Court held that the doctrine of ultra-hazardous acts should only be applied where an activity posed a material risk of causing exceptionally serious harm to others even if it was carried out with reasonable care. On the facts, the demolition works were not ultra-hazardous. There was also nothing to indicate that the appellants were in any sort of relationship of “special dependence” on or “particular vulnerability” in relation to the respondents so as to warrant the imposition of a non-delegable duty of care on the latter.

In the circumstances, the Court dismissed the appeal. Since, on a proper conception of the doctrine of ultra-hazardous acts, the demolition works in this case could not possibly come within its ambit, the Court observed that it was not necessary to reach a conclusive view on whether the doctrine should be recognised as part of the law in Singapore and, by extension, on whether it should be subsumed under the general law of negligence.

At Ng Huat Seng and another v Munib Mohammad Madni and another [2017] SGCA 58, paras 62, 63, 64, 69, 70, 76, 89, 96, 97, 103, 106. To view the judgment, click <here>.

Disclaimer: The above is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s judgment. It is not intended to be a substitute for the reasons of the Court.