In the case of Gary & Karen Patchett v Swimming Pool & Allied Trades Association Ltd (SPATA), the Court of Appeal has considered the extent to which SPATA owed Patchett a duty of care in making certain statements on its website.

Facts

The Patchetts were looking for a contractor to build them a swimming pool in the garden of their home. SPATA is an incorporated trade association. Its membership includes most of the major swimming pool installers trading in the UK. In his search for a contractor Mr Patchett came across SPATA’s website via Google. SPATA’s homepage had a series of drop down menus, which included ‘SPATA INFORMATION’ and ‘MEMBER SEARCH’. The homepage itself was headed ‘WHO AND WHAT IS SPATA?’ and had ten paragraphs listed beneath. The information in these paragraphs included the following:

  1. “Installing a swimming pool is a specialised task requiring skills and technical expertise in a number of different areas. One way of guaranteeing that the pool installation company has this expertise is to make sure that they are a member of SPATA before contacting them for a quotation”
  2. “SPATA is the trade association for the swimming pool industry in the UK…”
  3. “SPATA pool installer members are fully vetted before being admitted to membership, with checks on their financial record, their experience in the trade and inspections of their work….. Only SPATA registered pool and spa installers belong to SPATASHIELD, SPATA’s unique Bond and Warranty Scheme offering customers peace of mind that their installation will be completed fully to SPATA standard – come what may!”
  4. “SPATA supplies an information pack and members lists which give details of suitably qualified and approved installers in the customer’s area. The pack includes a Contract Check List which sets out those questions that the customer should ask a would-be tenderer together with those which must be asked of the appointed installer before work starts and prior to releasing the final payment.”

In reliance on the information on the site, Mr Patchett obtained the contact details of three member companies and got quotes from them. One of the three was Crown Pools and Mr Patchett accepted this quotation. Mr Patchett did not apply for an information pack or make any further enquiries about the SPATASHIELD cover.

Crown began the work but did not complete it. Mr Patchett paid the instalments due but Crown was in serious financial difficulties. It wrote to its customers saying that it was technically insolvent and that it had ceased trading. The Patchetts had the work completed by another contractor and suffered financial loss as a result. They brought proceedings against SPATA claiming that paragraphs (1) and (3) above were negligent misstatements in that they were inaccurate and misleading because, as the Patchetts had subsequently discovered, only ‘full’ members of SPATA underwent the checks on their financial record and work standard and were covered by SPATASHIELD. As it turned out, Crown was not a full member of SPATA. None of this was apparent from the website.

Decision

The question for the Court of Appeal was whether SPATA owed the Patchetts a duty of care. It applied a threefold test to determine this, namely (1) was the loss suffered by the Patchett’s reasonably foreseeable; (2) was there a sufficient degree of proximity between the parties; and (3) would it be fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care on SPATA. The Court of Appeal held by a majority that SPATA did not owe the Patchetts a duty of care. Whilst SPATA no doubt knew that the representations on its website would be likely to be acted upon by people like the Patchetts, it would not expect them to do so without further enquiry. It held that the website, when read as a whole and in particular paragraph (4) above, urged further enquiry. The website made it clear that SPATA supplied an information pack. The customer was expected to obtain this. The availability of information packs acted as a disclaimer by SPATA in relation to the accuracy of the information on its website. It made it clear that users should not rely on the information on the site without further enquiry. This meant that it would not be fair, just and reasonable to hold that SPATA owed the Patchetts a duty of care. The mere fact that the statements were on a website did not support the conclusion that a duty of care was owed. Lady Justice Smith gave a dissenting judgment in which she held that SPATA did owe a duty of care to the Patchetts. She said that paragraph (4) above did nothing more than merely offer the information pack that gave advice on how to deal with a contractor. There was no link made between the pack and the SPATASHIELD scheme. Nor was there any suggestion that the pack might limit the reliance that the customer could place on the statements on the website that a particular contractor was a member of SPATA and therefore a good contractor to engage. In those circumstances, the reference to the information pack did not act as a disclaimer and did not suggest to the customer that it should not rely on the information on the site without further enquiry.

Comment

The case is a helpful illustration of the application of the tort of negligent misstatement to websites. Website owners will welcome this decision. It has highlighted the importance of disclaimers on websites that provide information on which users are likely to rely. Indeed, the ‘disclaimer’ used in this case (the offering of the information pack) was the reason that SPATA was found not to be liable. How useful website disclaimers are is generally questionable but this case does suggest that, going forward, it may be advisable for website owners to include an appropriate disclaimer on their site. This should make it clear that they are not inviting website users to rely on the contents of their website without further enquiry. The disclaimer should be displayed prominently on the site to ensure that it comes to customers’ attention.

Further reading

Click here for a copy of the judgment