On the basis that prevention is better than cure, there are a number of practical steps which should always be taken before commencing a renovation project in order to minimise the risk of damage to fittings and fittings.

The possibility of removing fixtures and fittings from the area of the works and safely storing them elsewhere in the property or offsite should be considered.  It's usually best to include this in the contractor's contract as, in the event of damage to the fixtures and fittings, this avoids any arguments as to which party was responsible.

The contractor should also be made responsible for protecting the existing building fabric and any fixtures and fittings which cannot conveniently be removed.  A wide range of products specifically designed for this is available and the architect should be able to assist in specifying the best possible protection.

Before any work commences, its always good practice to prepare and agree a schedule of conditions with the contractor.  This should record the condition of the existing structure and fixtures and fittings, should contain indexed photographs, and should identify any existing defects or damage.  The existence of such a schedule will help minimise any arguments over responsibility for damage.

A properly drafted contract, clearly setting out the rights and responsibilities of the parties, should always be prepared and entered into.  This should always cover such points as the standard of workmanship which is required, the safe removal and storage of fixtures and fittings, requirements for protection, responsibility for damage caused by the building works and requirements for insurance cover.

Responsibility for damage to fixtures and fittings will be governed by the formal contract, if there is one.  For example, the standard form building contracts published by the Joint Contracts Tribunal, or JCT, typically provide that the contractor is responsible for any damage caused by the building works to any property, other than the "Works", and require the contractor to indemnify the employer against any such damage.  

In practice, damage to fixtures and fittings is often dealt with under the insurance provisions of the contract.  The JCT contracts require the risk of any accidental physical damage to both the "Works" and the existing structure to be covered by insurance, in the joint names of the employer and contractor.  In the case of renovation work, this insurance is typically taken out by the employer, often as an "add on" to the normal buildings cover.  This policy will cover damage to fixtures and fittings caused by the contractor, but there is an exception for defects due to wear and tear or obsolescence, which again underlines the importance of an agreed schedule of condition.  When fixtures and fittings are damaged, an insurance claim can be made and the employer is entitled to receive the insurance pay out: the employer can use this to pay for repairs or replacement.

If there is no formal contract, the position is never as clear.  The responsibility for removal, storage and protection, for responsibility for damage caused by the building works to fixtures, and for insurance cover may not be properly recorded.

In these circumstances, it will probably be necessary to rely on the Supply of Goods and Services Act or the law of negligence.  Under this Act, contractors must carry out the works with "reasonable skill and care", and under the law of negligence they must exercise a similar standard of care.  If they do not, they may be liable for any damage caused to fixtures and fittings. So it will be necessary to show that the contractor has failed to comply with these standards.  This may not be easy. By distinction, under a JCT contract there is no need to establish that the contractor has been "careless".

The employer's general buildings insurance may also help.  But it may be a condition of such insurance that the insurer is notified before any building work is carried out, and failure to do this may result in cover being refused.   

This article was written by David Johnson and originally appeared in Prime Resi Journal of Prime Property in March 2015.