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National law firm Weightmans has secured judgment in favour of an engineering client facing a claim arising from a defective sewage treatment plant.

National law firm Weightmans has secured judgment in favour of an engineering client facing a claim arising from a defective sewage treatment plant.

In the case of Baylham Care Centre Ltd v Mixbrow Ltd v JMS Consulting Engineers Ltd, Baylham pursued a claim against contractor Mixbrow following the installation of an inadequate sewage treatment plant during the construction of a new care home complex. The care home was built in a remote site, and instead of the usual mains sewage connection, a package sewage treatment plant was included as part of the build.

The plant proved unable to adequately treat the waste, and the Environment Agency ordered that it be taken out of use and prompting Baylham Care Centre to connect to the mains sewer, at some expense given the distance and gradient. It issued proceedings against the builder, Mixbrow, as a result.

Mixbrow brought the project engineer, JMS, into the proceedings, contending that JMS’ engineering brief had included designing the sewage treatment plant, which they denied.

A mediation was held, but did not resolve the matter. Shortly before trial, Mixbrow settled Baylham’s claim at £699,500. The dispute proceeded to a trial between Mixbrow and JMS, heard over four days before HHJ Bird in the Technology and Construction Court in London.

Weightmans represented JMS. The legal team, led by Partner Alex Marler, argued that JMS’s contract was clear: whilst its brief included design of ‘sewers’, this referred to the pipes conveying waste to its destination; it did not include designing or specifying the processing plant.

At the conclusion of the trial, HHJ Bird agreed with Weightmans’ interpretation of the contract. He concluded that any involvement with the design of sewers did not include the sewage treatment plant, going on to say that ‘To accept Mixbrow’s interpretation of the contract I would need to adopt a strained and unnatural meaning of the words adopted by the parties to summarise their bargain. I am entirely satisfied that that would be the wrong course.’

HHJ Bird found JMS to have no liability, and ordered Mixbrow to pay its costs of the entire claim, beginning with an interim payment of £100,000. HHJ Bird refused Mixbrow permission to appeal.

Alex Marler comments:

“This is the correct result, which comes as a relief to our clients who maintained a consistent position from the outset. JMS has been vindicated, the High Court holding that the offending plant simply was not its responsibility.

“Professionals such as engineers can be seen as easy targets, with their insurers representing a source of cash when projects go wrong. This decision is a victory for the common-sense logic that such professionals can only be held responsible for problems in aspects of a project that were their responsibility. In this case, designing or specifying the sewage treatment plant simply was not our client’s job.

“The decision highlights the importance of ensuring contracts are clear and unambiguous. It also highlights the significant risk that builders take on when contracting on a design-and-build basis: the buck will stop with them if they have failed to delegate any parts of their wide-ranging responsibilities.”