Property owner’s duty to warn people of hazards

In the case of Johnson & Anor v Hancock [2014] QCA 130, On 4 September 2013, a judge of the District Court in Queensland gave judgment in the sum of $445,515.90 plus costs, for a claim for loss of dependency arising out of the death of Mr Cawood Hancock from injuries sustained when he fell down a drain pipe on residential land at Indooroopilly in Brisbane.

The trial judge found Mr Hancock’s fall and subsequent death were caused by the property owners negligence in failing to warn Mr Hancock about the presence of the drain pipe. The property owners appealed this decision in the Queensland Court of Appeal. This Appeal was later dismissed on 3 June 2014.

Mr Hancock fell into the drainage pipe whilst undertaking gardening work at the Indooroopilly property on 7 October 2009. The incident happened whilst Mr Hancock and his assistant, Charles Fenech, were trimming shrubbery in an area located behind a pool and adjacent to the rear boundary of the property.

Whilst undertaking this task, Mr Hancock stepped back onto an area of ground somewhat lower than the pool area. Unbeknown to Mr Hancock, there was located under that area of ground a 900 millimetres diameter drainage pipe. The drainage pipe was covered by a metal lid and contained a metal grate to prevent entry into the pipe.

When Mr Hancock stepped onto that area of ground, the metal lid and grate collapsed under his weight, causing him to fall downwards into the drainage pipe which was over two metres deep causing Mr Hancock to seriously injure his knee. As a result of the reduced mobility, he developed deep vein thrombosis in his right leg, which resulted in a pulmonary embolism later causing his death.

The metal lid over the pipe, which had a lip around its circumference enabling the cover to fit over the circular steel grate, appears to have rusted over time, as had the grate. The existence of the drainage pipe was not recorded on any drainage plan, and was not known to the local authority. The drainage pipe had, however, been in situ for many years.

The trial judge found it likely the drainage pipe dated from around the time a drainage easement was created in 1965 over land running along the northern boundary of the property. Whilst the presence of the pipe was not recorded on any drainage plan, a search of the title of the property revealed the existence of the drainage easement.

This case highlights the important responsibility of home owners to provide people with a safe and healthy environment, whether the people entering your property are friends, tradesmen or neighbours.

Click to access the judgement to the case.