The Malta Independent 27 May 2019, Monday

Why should homeowners have to pay for damages caused by profit-making activities?

Friday, 26 April 2019, 08:17 Last update: about 1 month ago

Bjorn Bonello

It is clear as day that more needs to be done. From the many episodes I encounter on a weekly basis, some relatively minor to others that are tragic, it is obvious that the current framework is insufficient to protect those that are in the comfort of their homes, conducting their lives and suddenly find themselves in hardship due to construction works in close proximity.

Agreed that some aspects are subjective and some may make a storm out of a teacup, some may see it as an opportunity to profit driven by pique, past altercations, or outright jealousy but these are a very small minority.

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In the majority of cases, they are honest people, some elderly that have spent their lives in a house and are still independent, but are forced into an institution, as they will otherwise live their lives in fear for the health and life. When a person or persons has/have to wake up in the middle of the night to remove bucket loads of water due to negligence; when they have 5cm of water all throughout the house because the developer ran out of money or the builder (some with no license or use a proxy) has too many jobs and leaves the site in a derelict state and incomplete with no precautions against the climatic elements; when third parties are afraid to go out in their front garden or yards as falling bricks, large stones or tools fall from the overlying floors on a daily basis, when their party wall is shaken in a manner that parts of it have been displaced by a number of centimeters, and they are forced to sell and move elsewhere; something in the current system is not working or missing.

Unfortunately, the Building Regulations Office, insurance firms and police have proven insufficient to protect third parties. Resting on the current mechanisms of bank guarantees and the insurance against damage is obviously not enough.

For instance if through water infiltration, one has his/her walls are covered in mould what remedy would he/she get? Exposure to damp and mouldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, such as nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, or, in some cases, skin irritation amongst others, depending on the individuals sensitivity and pre-existing health conditions, but there are other aspects that are often overseen.

Sometimes, remedial works cannot be done immediately as the masonry needs to be dry; in the meantime one will notice that due to the infiltration and dampness, most of the furniture, photos, frames etc, warp and become irremediably damaged and need to be replaced. The structure of the building itself may suffer water damage that at the time is hidden such as concrete reinforcement of ceilings.

To compound the misery, one not only needs to seek legal assistance and embark in costly court proceedings (after going to BRO and police), which some cannot afford, but when the insurance surveyor visits the place (depending on the individual's subjective judgment) the compensation may be much less, and by far, than that needed to replace the objects and undertake the remedial works necessary.

Therefore third parties who have been in the comfort of their home will be forced to refurnish and conduct construction work (repainting, painting, repair damages) at their own expenses, as insurance will only cover part of the damage (similar to the way that some cars are only allowed to replace parts with second hand or imitation parts instead or original).

Homeowners are naturally bewildered by this and justifiably angry. This even when unlike some cases, their dwellings were not completely destroyed and lost all their belongings.

Why should they pay for the damage they have suffered at the hands of others that are carrying out an activity for profit?

There are some questions one poses after this week’s incident. Where was the architect? How many times did he/she inspect the site? Were the builders all licensed and duly qualified? Have all precautions been made, not only bureaucratic ones but also in terms of workmanship?

Was the existing structure and those adjacent only inspected superficially or was there a geotechnical study of the underlying strata or foundations? Would the current works compromise future works on adjacent sites (presence of clay strata for instance)?

These are but a few of the legitimate questions one puts forward. That is why developers are accused of being greedy and cutting corners, as although the industry has exploded in recent years and the coffers have been amply filled many times over, there is no visible upgrading of the industry.

We are importing/exploiting 'slavery', untrained individuals find themselves labouring, shouted at in a demeaning manner, carrying heavy loads up and down the site, importing second hand vehicles, tools and practices have not been ungraded now that the market is at its peak.

Elderly persons and those with limited means are put in an abysmal position. I would suggest that in case of major damages (over a certain threshold for example €5,000), works have to be immediately stopped and the situation assessed by an appointed independent architect or technical expert at the developer’s expense; remedial action taken immediately, to make sure that no further damage is made and the situation is rectified as soon as practically possible; the third parties have to be compensated in full by the exact equivalent of their loss and they have to be given equal and equivalent alternative accommodation through the carrying out of the works until their completion. In this manner, developers will make sure that works are carried out diligently, and third parties will not need to pay for any money (legal or otherwise). This will make sure that third parties be compensated in their lifetime and not forced out of their homes, living sometimes their last years in distress and misery.

 

Bjorn Bonello is an Urban Planning Consultant

 

 

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