The term ‘latent condition’ can strike trepidation in the heart of the most hardened builder or sub-contractor, especially when the term is preceded by the words ‘unexpected’ or ‘unforeseen’.

Depending on what the latent condition is and the expense involved in rectifying any problems that arise as a result of the latent condition, the existence and subsequent discovery of a previously unforeseen site condition can be the difference between turning a profit on a job and losing a considerable amount of money. So it is important to understand what is meant by the term and what steps you can take to proactively manage your risk and exposure.

What is a ‘latent condition’?

Latent conditions are physical conditions which are either on, under or adjacent to a site. They cannot easily be identified during a routine site inspection and may also remain hidden even after a certain amount of site investigation has been carried out based on information provided at the time a tender or contract was prepared.

What constitutes a latent condition will vary depending upon the site in question.

Examples of latent conditions you may encounter on a site include hidden utility services such as power and drainage lines (if not shown on tender documents), mine shafts and soil contamination.

Who is responsible for latent conditions?

Just who will be responsible for any latent site conditions is an important consideration in any tender or contract process. Ideally the question of responsibility for any latent conditions should be considered and addressed as early as possible in the tender or pre-contract phase of any development or build.

Ultimately, the question of who will bear the risk of additional costs associated with any latent conditions comes down to a question of ‘What does the contract provide’?

Principals generally would prefer to pass the risk of any latent defects on to contractors and, not surprisingly, contractors would generally prefer the risk to be at the expense of the principal or at least shared with the principal.

If in doubt check and double check your contract and tender documents and always seek legal advice as soon as possible to avoid a potential costly dispute developing down the track.

Managing the risk of latent conditions?

Prior to entering into any contract or site investigation stage it is important that both principals and contractors are clear as to where the risk of any latent conditions lies.

In particular, consideration should be given to a range of matters including:

  • Deciding whether one party will bear all the risk of latent conditions or whether the risk and cost associated with any latent conditions will be shared between the principal and any contractors;
  • If a contractor is going to be responsible for the risk of any latent conditions, allowing them, as far as any time limits permit, sufficient time to carry out their own risk assessment and site inspections so as to ensure they are aware of the potential risks and costs involved;
  • Deciding what site testing is to be undertaken and who will bear the cost of any testing;
  • Considering any historical searches available in relation to either the subject site or any neighbouring properties; and
  • Agreeing, or providing, a framework that requires all parties to share any knowledge of any potential latent conditions that they suspect may be present or which are uncovered during any routine site testing and investigation.

What if liability for latent conditions is excluded or limited by contract?

If you are a principal and wish to exclude any liability for latent conditions it is recommended that you seek legal advice prior to preparing any contract or tender documentation.

Similarly, if you are a contractor and you are being asked to sign up to a contract where you will bear the risk of any latent conditions it is prudent to obtain advice prior to signing any documentation that may mean the chances of you turning a profit on a project are severely limited.

In particular, Courts in Australia have held that if a principal has a significant amount of bargaining power any exclusion clauses will be carefully scrutinised and must be properly drafted.

If there is any suggestion that a principal has been negligent or has provided any misleading or deceptive information or failed to provide any information that it already held they may well find themselves with an unenforceable exclusion clause and a large bill for any additional costs associated with a variation in works arising out of the latent condition.

If in doubt seek advice first and sign on the dotted line later….

The old saying “a stich in time saves nine” is very apt when managing the risk and cost associated with latent conditions. Whether you are a contractor or principal it is always best to take a prudent approach to the issue of latent conditions and never to assume things will sort themselves out down the track as life and construction are rarely so simple.