DCC needs to improve systems, coroner says

The Dunedin City Council needs to improve its systems for responding to concerns raised about unsafe buildings being used for accommodation, Otago-Southland region coroner David Crerar, said following a lengthy inquest into the death of a Dunedin man who fell from a first-floor doorway.

In his finding on the death of Cleveland Clarke, Mr Crerar said the council's building inspectorate lacked robust follow-up procedures and was too under-resourced to be proactive in its property inspections.

His comments follow his observations of how the council handled concerns raised with it after Mr Clarke's fall in 2006.

But the council's chief building inspector said he did not know what more could have been done and was confident the council handled the case as best it could given the challenges it faced with the building's owner.

Mr Crerar found that Mr Clarke (46) died as a patient of the Marne St Hospital in 2007 as a result of head injuries he received when he fell in September 2006 from inadequately secured doors at 14 Hope St, Dunedin, which was tenanted by owner Barry Vuyk for commercial purposes, but used as residential accommodation.

Mr Clarke was attending a party with friends who lived in the building, when, looking for a toilet or fresh air, he opened the doors, which were tied together with a thin strand of copper wire and gave no indication of the substantial drop immediately outside, and fell about 4m landing on his head on to concrete.

The coroner's report recommended the council improved its building inspection procedures and follow-up systems after it was revealed during the inquest that people were still living in the building two and a-half years after Mr Clarke fell.

This was despite Mr Vuyk twice being issued notices from the council to upgrade the premises or stop it being used as residential accommodation, being visited by building inspectors twice and advising the council people were no longer living there.

Mr Crerar recommended the council enhance its protocols and procedures to ensure that when concerns were raised immediate steps could be taken, by inspection, to ensure that premises were safe and suitable for residential occupation, and that an appropriate follow-up system was adopted.

He also recommended the council draw to the attention of all landlords, the dangers of allowing persons to use premises not designed for residential accommodation.

The council's chief building inspector, Neil MacLeod, said the council's system for monitoring and following-up notices issued to building owners had been modified since Mr Clarke's death.

But he did not believe anything more could be done.

Under the Building Act the obligation lay with building owners to ensure the building was safe and notify territorial authorities of any changes of use.

If owners advised them they had made buildings safe, building inspectors had to take their word for it.

In this case he and other inspectors had regularly driven past the premises after they became aware of the concerns, but it had not appeared there was anyone living there.

Several times Mr Vuyk had refused them access and when a "tenant" once answered the door to them, they advised him to leave and understood he had.

The council had no legal right to enter a property uninvited, he said.

"I am confident we did all we could have at the time."

"A further process was in train" regarding Mr Vuyk, but he could not comment more at this stage.

As to informing landlords of the dangers of using other non-residential zoned properties for accommodation, he queried how the council could do that, as it did not keep a list of landlords in the city.


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