Building or buying a new property can be as stressful as it is exciting. The last thing anyone wants is to discover their new structure has a serious problem, involving significant costs to fix or demolish, and may even require seeking legal advice for compensation.
What is slab heave?
There have been many reports of distraught homeowners suffering ‘slab heave’. This is the movement and/or cracking of the concrete slab acting as a property’s foundation. Slab heave sometimes takes years after building to observe or can happen within months of construction, and numerous causes of slab heave exist. Poor construction, design, planning and/or execution is common, but it has been primarily linked to excessive soil contraction and expansion due to heavily fluctuating moisture levels (unseasonably heavy rains after drought, being situated in a flood-prone area, insufficient site drainage, pipe leaks underground, etc.). Some tell-tale indicators of whether your property is affected by slab heave include cracked walls, jammed doors and windows due to the distortion of frames, roofing that twists or peels away from the rest of the house, uneven rising or sunken parts of your structure, and plumbing or pipe problems. These defects can be extremely costly to rectify and are understandably leaving homeowners, builders, and property developers drained, both financially and emotionally.
Who bears the legal responsibility for slab heave?
Few people would want to accept the blame for such a serious issue, but when the presence of slab heave becomes undeniably apparent, owners typically look to the design or geotechnical engineer(s) and builder(s). Before pursuing legal action against either of these parties, the owner or property developer should first ensure their own actions did not contribute to the damage (overwatering the lawn, carrying out unauthorised building work or extensions, neglecting to obtain or follow engineering or geotechnical reports that advised against their actions, etc.). After this has been established, one should seek legal advice first for assistance on how to deal with the issue. Seeking expert witness testimony (e.g. licenced contractors in relevant fields) to further support your case is also recommended, and the best way to select the appropriate expert is to speak to your lawyer.
The design and geotechnical engineers and builder involved in the design and construction of the property both owe a duty of care to the owner and subsequent owners of the property and should have acted as such when performing their relevant duties:
- The geotechnical engineer should have conducted a thorough investigation of the building site’s ground conditions (soil reactiveness, drainage classification, etc.) before construction commenced and recommended any necessary remedial actions if they deemed the current ground unsatisfactory for the building’s purpose.
- If there wasn’t a suitable foundation present at the time, the design engineer should have designed one and passed these plans on to the builder.
- The builder should have demonstrated proper and responsible workmanship when preparing and constructing the property, including performing the work with a reasonable level of care and skill, following the designs and advice provided by the design and the geotechnical engineers, and abiding by the statutory warranties described in the Domestic Building Contracts Act 1995 (VIC).
If either party is found to be in breach of their duty of care and/or warranties, they may be found liable for negligence and the owner may be entitled to damages.
Compensation and recovering from slab heave
If the owner is ruled to be entitled to damages for a defective slab, further assessment should be performed to decide whether they are to be compensated on the basis of the property suffering a diminution of value, or if it will need to be demolished and rebuilt. Diminution in value is calculated as a hypothetical equation comparing what the property with its defects would be worth on the property market against what it would be worth without the defects.
Claiming a case of slab heave against a builder or design or geotechnical engineer can be a taxing process and requires the input of expert witnesses, as well as lawyers who are extremely knowledgeable in the complexities of construction and property litigation. If you’re in need of dedicated legal advice, consult with Boutique Lawyers today. Contact us via email, phone, or visit our Melbourne CBD office on Collins Street to learn more about how we can help you achieve peace of mind.