Consumer Rights: Builder threatens to sue after fall off ladder

How do you return damaged goods if you have lost the shop's receipt? ... What help is available for self-employed people who aren't getting paid?
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The Independent Online

Q. I've had some work done on my house and while the builder was here he said the gutters needed to be cleared. I'm too old to climb a ladder so he sent someone to do it. He fell off the ladder and hurt his ankle. The builder is threatening to sue me because he says the ladder was too short. I can't afford to pay and I can't afford a solicitor. This is keeping me awake at nights.


Via email

A. Take a deep breath and stop panicking. In a similar case just last week, a judge ruled that it was the contractor who was responsible, not the home owner. In order to win a claim against you, the builder would have to prove that you were negligent in some way that caused this accident – for example, if you'd allowed someone to use a ladder that had been in the garage for 40 years and was rotten. But that's not the case.

The builder should have taken care of his employees or anyone else working for him and made sure that the person was working with the right equipment. If the man who came round to clear the gutters didn't have his own ladder and used yours, he or the boss should have done a proper risk assessment to make sure it was safe to work at that height using that ladder. I don't suppose for one minute that you agreed to your ladder being used and thought "it's too short but who cares"; I don't suppose you even realised it was too short. It's highly unlikely you would be found by a court to be negligent if the builder did go ahead and sue. The builder should be insured for situations like this and it's likely his insurance will settle any claim.

In the event that someone does have an accident on your property, your household insurance should cover it. Malcolm Tarling from the Association of British Insurers says: "Check your buildings and contents policies. You may be covered under either; building insurance covers your liabilities as an owner; contents insurance covers you liabilities as an occupier – but the person suing has to establish that you are legally liable."

If the builder contacts you again, talk to your insurance company and let them handle it. If you want some help to deal with the insurance company and the builder, see someone at your local Citizens Advice Bureau or another advice agency such as a law centre. In the unlikely event that you do need a solicitor, the advice centre will find an appropriate person to help you and work out what help you can get with the legal costs.

I suspect this is a case of a bad boss trying to blame someone else for his own failure to take care of and insure his workers. You'll probably never hear another word about it, but if you're struggling to deal with the stress this has obviously caused, go and see your friendly CAB for reassurance and take your insurance documents with you.

Q. On Saturday I went to return a dress I'd bought – it has a rip under the arm which I didn't notice in the shop. The assistant tried to say I must have ripped the dress putting it on, which I was furious about, so I demanded to see the manager. The upshot was they refused to take the dress back because I didn't have the receipt. I refused to accept a repair and I'm determined not to take no for an answer given the way they treated me. Where do I go from here?


via email

A. It's interesting how some shops never quibble and others won't budge. Often it's because the ones that aren't great on customer care don't know the rules. If the item was faulty when you bought it (ripped under the arm would count as faulty), and the fault wasn't pointed out to you, you're almost certainly entitled to your money back. (If the fault had been pointed out to you and you still bought it you wouldn't have a case.) You don't have to accept a repair.

The fact that you don't have a receipt makes no difference. Some shops try to hide behind that saying they need the receipt as proof that you bought the item from their particular shop. However, there are other ways you can prove where you bought something – a bag with the shop's name on it; a credit or debit card slip; the word of someone who was with you at the time. It's possible to make a genuine mistake about where you bought something so it's up to you to show where and when you bought the dress but that doesn't mean you must have the receipt.

Next, think about what recompense you really want. You're cross about this now but when you calm down you might decide you like the dress and would prefer to have a replacement or even a repair if the rip is fairly minor. If you still want a refund, go back with any proof of purchase if you have it, stay calm, explain that you know you have the right to a refund even though you don't have a receipt and with luck it will all be sorted out amicably. If not, enlist the help of your local consumer advice centre or trading standards department at your local authority. They should be able to advise you and perhaps even convince the shop of the rights and wrongs of the situation. Another source of advice is Consumer Direct at www.consumerdirect. or call 08454 040506. If all else fails, you have to decide whether it's really worth making a claim in the county court under the small claims process and any of the above can advise you. Recent figures show that we waste about £5,000 each in a lifetime by not taking back faulty goods partly because we're too scared. Given this experience, I can see why.

Q. I'm self-employed and am owed money by a few customers. Because of that, I can't pay a couple of my suppliers who are getting anxious. It's a vicious circle I can't get out of. I've noticed you've advised other business people when they can't pay their tax and national insurance. Can you suggest where I could get advice?


via email

The short answer is Business Debtline. It's a charity (part of the Money Advice Trust) which gives free, impartial and confidential advice online or over the phone. Call 0800 197 6026 or go to Have all the details of the business debts at your fingertips. As you're self-employed, your household spending and your business transactions are likely to be intermingled so have details of all the mortgage, rent, council tax and bills with you. The sooner you get help the better.

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