Many property owners, whether landlords or developers, will come across abandoned goods. Such goods could be found either at the end of a tenancy, on site prior to development, or commonly in the case of a property which has been repossessed. But have they really been abandoned, and can they be disposed of with no implications?
If a landlord or developer finds goods, they are classed as a "bailee". This means however unwittingly the goods have been discovered, the finder is responsible for taking care of the goods and must not do anything which reduces their value. Liability can arise in damages for wrongful destruction if goods are disposed of or destroyed, and it does not matter whether this is accidental or intentional. Claims can be substantial. Robot Arenas Limited –v- Waterfield (2010) concerned a claim for £344,650 for what had appeared to be scrap metal, mdf, and polycarbonate sheeting on the basis that it had actually been the set for the former TV series, "Robot Wars."
Often it will be unclear whether items have been abandoned so how can you protect yourself if you find such items?
- The previous lease may contain provision entitling you to dispose of any goods left on the premises at the end of the term, or not collected within a certain period.
- Make reasonable enquiries to find out who is the true owner (previous tenant, any known agents, occupants of neighbouring units, hire purchase companies).
- Insurance products are available in the case of obvious high value items.
- Serve notice on the owner requiring them to collect the goods, indicating they will be sold if uncollected. The obligation is then on the owner to collect and you are entitled to sell them if they do not. However the sting in the tail is that any proceeds left after costs of sale belong to the owner of the goods!
The moral of the story is to be absolutely sure you have taken all steps possible to find out who is the true owner of the goods before you throw them away. This also applies to contractors disposing of the items - contractors can find themselves unwittingly joined in to proceedings in these circumstances. If the owner cannot be found, there are steps one can take to leave the relevant notices with the goods, and a declaration from court entitling disposal will give absolute certainty.