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Property Subsidence: New Law, Strict Liability and Ubuntu

“…every landowner has a right to the lateral support and where subsidence or other destabilisation occurs, as a result of excavations on an adjacent property, the owner of the adjacent property will be liable in an action for damages irrespective of whether she was negligent or not.” (Extract from judgment below)

It’s every homeowner’s nightmare – your property starts subsiding and as the tell-tale cracks in the living room widen alarmingly, it begins to dawn on you that your whole house is at risk of collapse.

The cause must, you decide, be your neighbour’s excavations for a new house/garage/swimming pool. You approach said neighbour for a friendly chat and a request to do something about it urgently. “Sorry” replies your neighbour, “not my fault, I am building exactly according to approved plans so it’s your problem.”

So where do you stand legally?

A recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) decision has broken new ground (weak pun intended!) in our law here, and all property buyers, sellers and owners would do well to take note.

A slope subsides and a neighbour sues

  • This long-running dispute between neighbours dates from 2008 and concerns the owners of two properties on a steeply sloping mountainside, one above the other.
  • The house on the upper property was built in 1994. Fourteen years later in 2008 the owner of the lower property started extensive excavations in preparation for construction of her new house.
  • The upper owner very soon noticed problems, with his garden and outside walls showing clear signs of subsidence. Eventually there was a major movement in the underlying ground and the entire slope subsided. The upper owner’s property moved laterally and downwards towards the excavation resulting in extensive structural damage to the property. It was clearly a major event, with another neighbour having to abandon his property entirely because of safety concerns.
  • The upper owner sued the lower owner for damages, and after a long fight through the courts the matter ended up with the SCA which upheld the damages claim by the upper owner.

The duty of “lateral support” 

The Court addressed several important questions, all of them vitally important to any property owner or prospective property owner –

  • Does the duty of support cover buildings, or just land “in its natural state”? Our law has long recognised a neighbour’s duty to provide physical lateral support for adjoining properties, but until now it has been unclear whether that applies only to land “in its natural state”, or whether it extends also to developed land with “artificial” structures on it. It’s an important question – few urban properties would be covered if the duty applies only to undeveloped land.

    The SCA’s final word – the duty of support applies to both land in its natural state and to “improved” and developed land (i.e. your house and other structures are covered).

    As an important side note here, the Court referred to both the fact that “in our neighbour law, fairness and equity are important considerations”, and to the fact that “in our constitutional context, the principle of lateral support must find expression in the constitutional value of Ubuntu, which ‘carries in it the ideas of humaneness, social justice and fairness’” (Emphasis supplied). Sticking to the ‘letter of the law’ may no longer be enough when dealing with your neighbours!

    Which leads us to another important thought – take legal advice immediately you realise your property is in danger. You may well be advised to urgently apply for an interdict to stop the excavations or other building work from continuing.

  • Did the excavations breach that duty? The Court was faced with competing evidence from two geo-technical experts who were agreed that there was a slope failure which caused ground movement on the affected properties, but differed on the cause and mechanism of the slope failure. In the end the Court held that “the exact mechanism which caused the removal of lateral support is unimportant” and that the claimant “succeeded in establishing that the slope mobilisation had resulted from a breach of the duty to provide lateral support due to the excavation on the first appellant’s property”.
  • Did the excavations cause the loss? On an analysis of the evidence the Court determined that the claimant had established both factual causation (“whether the relevant conduct caused or materially contributed to the harm giving rise to the claim”) and legal causation (“whether the conduct is linked to the harm sufficiently closely or directly for legal liability to ensue, or stated differently, whether the harm is too remote from the conduct.”).
  • Is negligence necessary? Normally to establish a damages claim you must prove that the person who caused your loss acted both wrongfully and negligently (or deliberately). Not so, said the Court, “the right of support is a natural right of ownership” and in subsidence cases “it is unnecessary to prove an unlawful act or negligence; the cause of action is simply damage following upon deprivation of lateral support.”

That last finding of course means that landowners are “strictly liable” – something to bear in mind before you buy or develop any property where subsidence could possibly be an issue.

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