Landlords ‘on the hook’ for the safety of their premises
Earlier this month, a landlord of a commercial premises was sentenced and fined in the Southport Magistrates Court after pleading guilty to breaching work health and safety laws. The decision serves as a timely reminder that while tenants conducting a business will have obligations for their own business, this does not mean that landlords can ignore their own statutory safety obligations.
The Southport Magistrates Court heard that the landlord, River11 Pty Ltd, failed to ensure the building it leased to the tenant, a steel business, was without risks to the health and safety of any person. The Gold Coast Bulletin reported that the charge arose after a safety incident on 28 July 2019, in which a worker at the site suffered fractures, cuts and bruises when three bolts from a support bracket mounting a bridge crane to the wall failed, causing debris to strike the worker as he tried to move away.
The court heard that at the property, three bridge cranes were installed in a ‘runway structure’. The lease agreement detailed that the crane was owned by the landlord, and it would be responsible for completing necessary maintenance and repairs. It transpired that the landlord, while it conducted inspections when purchasing the building, did not examine the bridge cranes or runway, nor did it engage mechanical or structural engineers to carry out assessments. There was a further agreement that the tenant would enter into a preventative measures contract to complete the regular servicing of the crane, but this never eventuated and instead maintenance was performed on an ad-hoc basis. Work Health and Safety Queensland inspectors determined the lack of a support column was the main contributing factor to the incident.
Magistrate Gary Finger sentenced the landlord to a fine of $75,000 and ordered costs of $600 to be paid with no conviction. His Honour found the landlord breached its safety duty under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld), reasoning that there was a chance the worker could have been killed, the risk was an obvious one, and the likelihood of the risk eventuating was ‘moderate’. River11 Pty Ltd could have minimised this risk by ensuring engineers carried out routine inspections of the equipment.
Such exposure is not limited where a landlord’s business involves the leasing of commercial premises. Landlords who lease out residential properties can also owe obligations under safety laws. By way of example, in September 2020 a landlord pleaded guilty to safety breaches of the Electrical Safety Act 2002 (Qld). The tenant of the property in Carindale, Brisbane, had complained to the landlord about maintenance issues with a light switch. The landlord decided to complete the repair himself, instead of engaging a licenced electrician. Following investigation by the Electrical Safety Office, the landlord was prosecuted and was fortunate to be fined only $400 and ordered to pay filing costs.
Both cases demonstrate the importance for landlords to consider the relevance of safety in all leasing arrangements, given property owners may owe duties to tenants and their workers under work health and safety legislation.
Should you wish to better understand your obligations, we recommend getting in touch with Cameron Dean, Partner in McCullough Robertson’s Employment Relations and Safety Team. Our property team can also assist with developing clauses in leasing arrangements to assist to minimise exposure, so far as permissible, noting that the safety laws will not permit contracting out of safety duties completely. Reach out to a member of our property team here.
Thank you to Alex Russell from our Employment Relations and Safety team for your contribution.
This publication covers legal and technical issues in a general way. It is not designed to express opinions on specific cases. It is intended for information purposes only and should not be regarded as legal advice. Further advice should be obtained before taking action on any issue dealt with in this publication.