Findings from inquiry into Rockhampton wooden deck tragedy likely to change landlord inspection requirements
By Larry Schlesinger
Thursday, 20 September 2012
Landlords could soon have a legal obligation to ensure wooden decks are safe for tenants.
This follows the release of a findings from Rockhampton Coroner Annette Hennessy after an inquest into the tragic death of seven-week-old baby Isabella Diefenbach in May 2010.
Isabella died after falling from the deck of her parents’ rental home in Yeppoon, north of Rockhampton. She was being held by her father, Adam, when his foot fell through a rotted wooden plank on the house’s deck, causing Isabella to fall from his arms.
Hennessy recommends that current state laws be amended to ensure mandatory inspections are undertaken on decks that are 10 years old or more before a property is placed on the rental market, and that ongoing checks of decks are undertaken every three years thereafter.
She has also called on the real estate industry to ensure wood rot is classified as an emergency repair – meaning any time this is identified in a rental property it must be acted on as an immediate priority.
Before Isabella’s death her parents Adam and Jenny had made complaints to their real estate agent and landlord about the state of the deck.
In her report Hennessy said the Diefenbachs went to the real estate agent four times to have the floorboards fixed.
She said a carpenter was called in but had not done the repairs properly.
The legal requirements of landlords and tenants are contained in the Residential Tenancies and Rooming Accommodation Act.
Under the act, works deemed emergency repairs are any of the following:
a burst water service
a blocked or broken lavatory service
a serious roof leak
a gas leak
a dangerous electrical fault
flooding or serious flood damage
serious storm, fire or impact damage
a failure or breakdown of the gas, electricity or water supply to premises a failure or breakdown of an essential service or appliance on premises for hot water, cooking or heating
a fault or damage that makes premises unsafe or insecure
a fault or damage likely to injure a person, damage property or unduly inconvenience a resident of the premises
a serious fault in a staircase, lift or other common area of premises, that unduly inconveniences a resident in gaining access to, or using, the premises.
In Queensland, the residential rental sector is managed by the Residential Tenancies Authority.
At the inquest real estate agent Ross O’Reilly said he was aware of some deterioration of timber on the deck before the incident, but said he felt safe while walking around.
He told the court he had not noticed a large hole in the deck.
In her report, Hennessy also called on O’Reilly’s Real Estate to adjust its internal practices.
Gino Andrieri from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, who represented the Diefenbachs at the inquiry, says the coroner’s findings are an acknowledgement that Isabella’s death could have been avoided if things had been done differently.
Hennessy’s other recommendations include that tenants to have greater access to information about their rental properties, including being allowed to access inspection reports to ensure they are confident the house they are living in is safe.
“These changes will require a range of industry bodies to work together to implement, but the priority for the Diefenbach family has always been to ensure lessons are learned and that something like this can never happen to another family,” says Andrieri.
“We are hopeful today will see the start of this, right across Queensland’s real estate industry.”
The Real Estate Institute of Queensland (REIQ) has acknowledged the findings, but having already spoken with the state government, has sought industry self-regulation along with compulsory professional development.
”The Institute has made ongoing representations to the government during the lead-up to the proposed review of the Property Agents and Motor Dealers Act about the need for the introduction of an appropriate disclosure regime for landlords, as implied in the coroner’s recommendations,” he said.
”Property managers are the intermediary between property owners and tenants and can often be perceived as having statutory responsibilities under the Residential Tenancies and Rooming Accommodation Act which in fact remain with the owner.”
Linda and Carlos Debello
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