Stephen Clarke’s Case notes: Ms S Jones and Ms R Lovegrove
Ms S Jones and Ms R Lovegrove v Mr L Ruth and Mrs K Ruth
Court of Appeal 12 July 2011
Ms Jones and Ms Lovegrove (the claimants) bought a terraced house in Nottingham. Mr and Mrs Ruth (the Ruths) owned the next two houses in the terrace and were apparently unhappy that these were two-storey houses, whereas the claimants’ property was a three-storey house. To rectify this, the Ruths embarked on a building project to create a new third storey, a larger kitchen and a rebuilt garage for each of their two properties.
The building works, which the appeal court judges later said should have taken a year, were started in May 2002 and not completed until March 2010. The claimants alleged that, during the course of this period, they suffered nuisance (including excessive, persistent noise and vibration which caused cracking to their walls); trespass (including the storage of building materials and the erection of scaffolding in their rear garden and holes being punched in their gable wall for the insertion of purlins); and a long campaign of harassment. This harassment included the damage and partial demolition of a boundary wall owned by them, rubbish persistently thrown into their garden and what is described as “anti-social behaviour”.
The Ruths also ignored numerous requests to reduce noise to reasonable levels, refused to provide any information regarding the programme of the building works and engaged in a campaign of intimidation.
The claimants said this behaviour led to anxiety and depression and that this in turn led to severe back pain which necessitated physiotherapy, counselling and other treatment. As a result, Ms Jones had to stop work for five years.
The judge in the original hearing in the Technology and Construction Court accepted the majority of the evidence against the Ruths and ordered them to pay £45,000 damages for trespass, and £30,000 for loss of enjoyment. However, he did not give a cogent ruling on the loss of earnings and general damages for harassment that were claimed. Both parties appealed.
The Court of Appeal upheld the majority of the original decision. The good news for the Ruths was that the damages for trespass were reduced from £45,000 to £15,000.
However, the claimants were awarded general damages for harassment of £28,750 and £115,000 for the personal injury claim. The main legal point was that it was not necessary for the personal injury to be reasonably “foreseeable” for a claimant to recover damages as a result of harassment.
Stephen Clarke’s analysis
This is an interesting case because the laws of nuisance, trespass and harassment in the context of construction works have only rarely been considered at the rarefied level of the Technology and Construction Court.
All building projects will involve neighbours in some “nuisance”. The law recognises that there will be noise, dust and vibration, but it requires that construction operations need to be “reasonably carried on and all proper and reasonable steps need to be taken to ensure that no undue inconvenience is caused to neighbours”. That was definitely not the case here.
Trespass in this case largely means what it says, and clearly, the fact that no consent was obtained in regards to the scaffolding and/or the works on the claimants’ wall meant that this was easily proven.
Harassment is defined as “persistent tormenting or irritation of the victim … to cause a person distress”. It is deliberate conduct that the guilty party should know will have an effect on the other and the judges held that that is what happened here.
This case is a warning that the courts will award substantial damages against those who undertake building works without the relevant consents and who completely ignore those whose lives are being affected by the works.