Choosing to live in a secured residential estate in South Africa is becoming ever more popular with South Africans. Entering your estate whilst security guards watch out for unknown assailants that may enter, living in your home peacefully knowing that the security guards are ensuring that people may only enter with your permission, giving the home owners a sense of security. But is this a true sense of security or is it false, and if the unfortunate happens that you are robbed or assaulted in your home, who is responsible? The Home Owners’ Association? The security company?
A Home Owners’ Association (HOA) is a body/committee comprising of the home owners of a specific estate entrusted with the running of the estate and communal affairs of those that own homes there.
On the 28th of August 2018, Judge J Unterhalter of the Gauteng Local Divison High Court handed down judgment in a matter of Van der Bijl and Another vs Featherbrooke Home Owners’ Association and Another. The Van der Bijls, home owners in a secured estate, brought an action against the (HOA) and the security company for failing to secure their safety, as their property was invaded by robbers.
On the 8th of April 2014, robbers unlawfully gained access into the estate during the night and then proceeded to enter the Van der Bijls’ home. Mr Van der Bijl suffered a gunshot wound to his abdomen and Mrs Van der Bijl sustained injuries from being assaulted. Due to these injuries, the Van der Bijls claimed damages from the HOA and the security company, alleging that the HOA and security company were wrongful in their duty to care and were negligent as they failed to take measures to ensure their safety.
The HOA defended the action and took exception to the Van der Bijls’ cause of action, citing that the HOA did not have a legal duty to take steps to protect the Van der Bijls from the robbery, thus there was no wrongfulness or negligence on their part. The court’s stance is that wrongfulness and negligence are two separate requirements of Aquilian liability. Where wrongfulness concerns the issue as to whether the law imposes liability by recognising a legal duty resting upon the defendant to prevent the harm that the plaintiff suffered, negligence concerns the defendant’s conduct judged against the standard of whether a reasonable person would have foreseen the harm and guarded against it, inter alia, a defendant may be burdened with a legal duty to prevent a harm, but his/her conduct may be blameless because the harm was not reasonably foreseeable. Thus, a defendant may be negligent but not act wrongfully because there was no duty to prevent the harm.
The HOA took exception to the plaintiff’s particulars of claim inter alia, it did not have a legal duty to protect the Van der Bijls from the robbery, citing that the Van der Bijls did not make a case for Aqulian liability as there was no wrongfulness. The plaintiff’s counsel relied heavily on the decision of the Loureiro case, wherein the Constitutional Court held that a private security company, who was employed and remunerated for crime preventing, owed a duty to stop avoidable harm. The Constitutional Court went to express the opinion that there would be wholesome deterrent effect if private security firms were not insulated from their own mistakes. Thus, the plaintiff’s counsel submitted that, as in the Loureiro case, the security company employed by the HOA had a duty to protect the residents of the estate including the Van der Bijls and the HOA bears the same duty. But the two cases do not bear the same facts, inter alia, Loureiro did not decide that Mr Loureiro, by hiring a security firm, was under any duty to secure the house, it was the security company that owed the duty to protect Mr Loureiro and his family. So the fact that the HOA employed the security company to provide security for the estate does not simply follow on that the HOA owed the same duty as that assumed by the security company. Such a duty would have to be shown to exist apart from what the security company had undertaken to do. But yes, following the logic of Loureiro, it is the security company that owed a duty to the HOA and the members it represents.
Hence the Van der Bijls may have recourse against the security company and they are one of the defendants. Further, it was noted that the robbers/assailants that caused the harm were not sued and which the plaintiff will have a claim against.
While the Van der Bijls definitely enjoy fundamental rights to security of the person, bodily, physical and psychological integrity, dignity and privacy, and these rights were infringed by being assaulted in their home, the big question is from whom can these rights be claimed. The answer is, you will have a claim against the assailants, and based on the Loureiro case, the security company, but the Judge failed to see how the HOA, which is an extension of the collective will of the estate home owners, is burdened with the duties to secure these rights. Should the home owners be burdened with these duties, then the question is, does my neighbour have a duty to protect me in my home? He or she may come to your aid and he/she may be described as being valiant to do so but it is not out of duty. Further, there was no contractual obligation, be it in the Memorandum of Agreement or written agreement between the HOA and the home owners, holding the HOA liable for protecting the Van der Bijls.
In conclusion, the court found that the plaintiff’s particulars of claim did not set out a cause of action, which follows that the HOA did not have a legal duty to protect the home owners, in particular, the van der Bijls, hence not wrongful.
So, the next time you are thinking of buying a property in an estate, make sure you read the Memorandum of Agreement and understand your rights as a home owner.
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)