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Carter Holt cladding 'inherently defective', appeal court hears

04 Mar 2015

Carter Holt Harvey's cladding sheets and systems used through 880 school buildings were "inherently defective" and the Ministry of Education is entitled to sue the building products maker, the Court of Appeal heard today.

In the second day of a three-day hearing, the ministry's counsel, Jim Farmer QC, told Justices Tony Randerson, Lynton Stevens, and Mark Cooper that the product liability claim against Carter Holt is a preventative measure to recoup the costs posed by the faulty cladding.

Whether the cladding met industry norms and standards at the time, or if Carter Holt's contracts with merchants and building contractors limited its liability were a matter of debate, and would be decided by the evidence at trial.

"Our claim is that the cladding is inherently defective, regardless of whether or not it complies with regulatory requirements and we say that its use in construction of schools causes damage to the plaintiff's property and is a risk to the health of children and teachers," Farmer said.

The ministry and school boards of trustees have a duty to the occupants of their buildings, and if they discover a potential problem that could cause damage to other property or pose a risk to the health of those occupants, "they are entitled to look to pursue who cause the problem and recover the economic cost," he said.

Carter Holt is appealing a High Court ruling that turned down its application to strike out the hearing, saying it didn't have a duty of care because the cladding was only one component of the buildings that were erected, and that if the ministry wanted greater protection it could have negotiated to do so.

David Goddard QC, counsel for Carter Holt, today told the court a very special reason would be needed to allow the ministry's action to proceed as no damage or injury had materialised.

If the courts found Carter Holt held a duty to provide protection for potential damage or injury, "that would be a very important ruling" and could have a significant bearing on any settlement, Goddard said.

Farmer said Goddard was relying on old case law that was superseded by a Privy Council decision 20 years ago that allowed New Zealand common law to develop based on local conditions in the property market and building sector.

In April 2013, the Education Ministry launched a $1.5 billion action against cladding manufacturers Carter Holt, James Hardie Industries and CSR to recoup the costs involved in a remediation programme for 800 buildings across 300 schools.

It has since reached confidential settlements with James Hardie and CSR, though Goddard today said there are some cross-claims against those parties as at least 73 school buildings used a mixture of cladding products.

The ministry this year revised its estimate for the total cost of fixing leaky schools to between $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion, and said it was still in negotiations with Carter Holt to achieve a potential settlement.

As at November 2014, the ministry's remediation recovery programme covered 1,792 buildings, of which 343 were active, 1,346 were discontinued, 91 had settlements in place and 12 were on hold. In addition to the existing settlements, a further 57 buildings have settlements agreed in principle.

The hearing is continuing.

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