10 April 2017 #Dispute Resolution
Most professionals will have found themselves, at some stage in their career, giving free advice to a friend as a favour. Sometimes, the favour might extend to not just giving advice but actually doing a piece of work for a friend at no cost. What you probably don’t expect in return for that generosity is to be sued if things go wrong, which is what happened in the recent Court of Appeal case of Lejonvarn v Burgess.
Mrs Lejonvarn was an architect, and her neighbours and good friends, Mr and Mrs Burgess, were planning a largescale and high value landscaping project on the gardens of their North London home. Mrs Lejonvarn had previously done work for Mr Burgess and his company, and when the Burgesses received an expensive estimate for the proposed landscaping works, she offered to have her own contacts quote for the project.
From there Mrs Lejonvarn became heavily involved in the project, securing contractors and project managing the works for no fee. It was envisaged that she would carry out some design work at a later stage, for which she would be paid, but all her initial sourcing and project management work was done at no charge.
Unfortunately, the project went badly wrong, resulting in additional costs to Mr and Mrs Burgess of £235,000 to put it right, which they then sought to recover from Mrs Lejonvarn.
The Court found that there was no contract between Mr and Mrs Burgess and Mrs Lejonvarn, because she wasn’t being paid. She was however liable to them in negligence. The judge found that, despite not being paid, Mrs Lejonvarn had assumed responsibility towards Mr and Mrs Burgess. She had offered her services to them with the expectation that they would rely on her advice, and the scope of her services had been clearly set out and agreed in emails between the parties. The Court therefore decided that she owed them a duty to exercise reasonable skill and care in directing, inspecting and supervising the works.
The lesson to be learned from this case is that professionals should be very careful about giving free advice to friends. Although liability is unlikely to arise from informal advice given in passing conversation, if this develops into carrying out substantive work which the recipient is relying on there is the potential for a duty of care to arise.