A diagnosis of Legionnaires’ disease is a serious matter, particularly for the victim. While most people recover from the infection, in a significant proportion of cases it can prove fatal. Whatever the outcome, the patient will be admitted to hospital and treated with antibiotics, and could potentially suffer long-term health consequences. Furthermore, since Legionnaires’ disease is notifiable under public health legislation, medical practitioners are obliged to inform the authorities when they suspect a patient has contracted the disease. There would then follow an investigation in an effort to track down the source of the infection, but what would this mean for landlords if a tenant becomes ill?
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) defines an outbreak as “two or more diagnosed cases linked by sufficient proximity in date of onset of symptoms, locality (place of residence, work or visited) and for which there is strong epidemiological evidence of a common source of infection”. If an outbreak is officially declared, an Outbreak Control Team (OCT) would be established. The primary role of this team is to protect public health, so there is an urgent imperative to identify the source and control the risk as quickly as possible.
The OCT would include specialist environmental health offices, clinicians, microbiologists and health & safety personnel, but also – tellingly – press and communications professionals. Given the rarity, and potential severity, of a Legionnaires’ outbreak, cases are highly likely to receive extensive media coverage, inflicting considerable reputational damage on organisations or people implicated in the case.
Inspections of a sufferer’s home are inevitable, and would potentially include water sampling and testing. Dutyholders may be directed to carry out emergency cleaning and disinfection of the plumbing system and the Legionella control measures in place will be scrutinised by the Health & Safety Executive. They will be looking for a demonstrable audit trail of evidence showing that all reasonable effort has been made to comply with legal obligations.
Where it is considered that a dutyholder has failed to adequately control the risk of Legionella, evidence can be used in any investigation or enforcement action (such as a court case).
It’s important to note that even if no evidence of Legionella is found in a rented property, the authorities could still take action against a landlord if they consider there to be failings in the risk assessment and monitoring procedures uncovered in the course of an investigation.
As you can see, there are considerable potential costs for landlords arising from a case of Legionnaires’ disease, including time input during the investigation and reputational damage, as well as the financial implications. Furthermore, if a case against you is proven, hefty fines or even a prison sentence could ensue.
Our advice? Prepare for the worst and it’s likely to ensure the best possible outcome. Keep your property safe by following an appropriate Legionella control regime and you’ll be protecting your tenants and yourself.