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Reasonable precautions conditions – what do they really mean?

3 December 2020
By Nicola Bowen

Conditions which require insureds to exercise ‘reasonable precautions’ are a staple of insurance policies. However, there is often a misunderstanding as to their meaning and effect, and what an insurer must show in order to rely on a breach to decline the claim. In this article we take a look at the applicable principles.

Reasonable precautions in a Professional Indemnity policy

Professional indemnity (“PI”) insurance is designed to protect an insured which has incurred a civil liability to a third party arising from negligence.

PI policies almost always require insureds to take reasonable care or reasonable precautions not to cause loss or damage to a third party. If “reasonable care”, in this context, had the same meaning as a tortious duty of care, the policy would be deprived of any real value, since that would effectively exclude the very liability that the policies are intended to cover.

To overcome that issue, the Courts have consistently held that an insurer can only rely on a reasonable precautions clause where it shows recklessness by the insured. In particular, in Fraser v Furman [1967]1 WLR 898, the Court held that it must be “shown affirmatively that the failure to take precautions … was done recklessly, that is to say with actual recognition of the danger and not caring whether or not that danger was averted”. Therefore, acting carelessly will not be sufficient; the requirement is that the insured must be reckless and not care about its conduct.

Reasonable precautions in a property policy

Over time, reasonable precautions clauses have become more commonplace in property and other first-party insurance policies (such as travel or motor insurance); but what does a requirement to take reasonable precautions in a property policy mean? Can an insurer decline a claim if an insured fails to take reasonable care? Does negligence suffice?

The Court of Appeal has confirmed that the recklessness threshold applies equally in property insurance. So, in Devco Holder Ltd v Legal and General Insurance Society [1993] Lloyd’s Rep 567, where a driver deliberately left his keys in the ignition for a few minutes whilst visiting his place of work, the Court of Appeal found that the driver breached the reasonable precautions condition in his policy because he was “deliberately courting a danger”. On that basis, the driver was not entitled to recover under the Policy.

The Court of Appeal in Sofi v Prudential Assurance Company [1993] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 559 reaffirmed the decision in Devco Holder that mere negligence will not suffice. So, in order to prove recklessness, it must be shown that the insured appreciated the risk (and that appreciation will be assessed subjectively). If it can be shown that an insured appreciates the risk but simply didn’t care or ignored it, he will be found to be reckless.

On the basis that a reasonable care clause is intended to exclude liability, the burden is on the insurer to prove recklessness.

In which situations might reasonable precautions conditions be relevant?

The drafting of reasonable precautions conditions is usually broad. For example, the clause may require an insured to “take all reasonable precautions to prevent or diminish damage or any occurrence or cease any activity which may give rise to liability under this Policy and to maintain all Property insured in sound condition.”

The general actions expected from insureds to diminish or reduce danger are likely to vary on a case by case basis and therefore not readily summarised; however, examples in a property context would include locking all doors and windows when the premises are empty (so as to minimise the risk of theft); taking precautions against fire or alerting the fire brigade promptly in the event of a fire; and adhering to guidance from professionals such as surveyors.

It is perhaps more illustrative, by comparison, to consider the sorts of actions which have been found to constitute a breach i.e. where an insured has acted recklessly. In particular:

  • Lambert v Keymood Ltd [1990], in which an insured continued to set bonfires at its premises, despite being warned about the dangers of doing so;
  • Limit (No.3) Ltd v Ace Insurance Ltd [2009], where an insured took no steps to repair a building, notwithstanding the fact that it was warned that it might collapse;
  • Grace Electrical Engineering Pte Ltd v EQ Insurance Co Ltd [2016], where an insured ignored advice regarding cooking operations taking place in the basement of its premises.

There is however an important distinction to be drawn between reasonable precautions and positive obligations under the policy which require insureds to take specific actions, such as hot works conditions, unoccupied buildings conditions, and security conditions. In Aspen Insurance v Sangster & Annand Ltd, the Court commented that the recklessness threshold will not apply where there is “a highly defined and circumscribed set of particular safeguards which have to be put in place” which involved a detailed hot works condition clause with which the insured had failed to comply.

Reminder for brokers and policyholders – a health warning

In order to avoid the risk of insurers seeking to decline the policy for a breach of reasonable precautions conditions, it is important for brokers and policyholders to be fully aware of their continuing obligations throughout the duration of policy.

Failure to warn the insured about such policy conditions may result in a broker being held liable in the event that indemnity is declined due to breach of a reasonable precautions or other specific condition – RR Securities & Ors v Towergate Underwriting Group Ltd [2016]. In this case, following a fire caused by arson, the insurer sought to decline the claim due to failure to comply with the minimum-security standards and failure to take reasonable precautions to avoid the loss.  The Court found that the insured had not been reckless and therefore there had been no breach of the reasonable precautions condition. However, the broker was found to be liable to the insured for failing to bring the onerous security conditions to the insured’s attention.

Whilst we see insurers seeking to rely on reasonable precautions conditions in circumstances where the insured has merely been careless or negligent, equally care should be taken to ensure that policyholders are fully aware of their obligations and to distinguish between reasonable precautions conditions and other more onerous requirements defined in the policy. In short:

  1. Where the policy contains a reasonable precautions clause, the insured must not act recklessly or against advice where it appreciates that a risk exists which might cause a loss; and
  2. Where the policy contains specific obligations, such as a hot works condition or unoccupied buildings condition, the reckless threshold does not apply – the insured must therefore take extra care to fully comply with those obligations or avoid a declinature of a claim at a later date.

Nicola Bowen is an Associate at Fenchurch Law