Couple awarded $345,000 after shoddy heating turns dream home into nightmare
It was supposed to be their dream home.
But a couple's "pride and joy" on a semi-rural property near Nelson turned into an 10-year nightmare because of a heating system that left them not only cold, but fearful.
A High Court judge has awarded Adrian and Vanessa Spiteri a total of $345,000 in damages after they sued RCR Infrastructure (New Zealand) Ltd for breach of contract.
Justice Clark said the couple had to put up with a "dysfunctioning and, at times, frightening central heating system".
In one episode a burst pipe sent scalding water through the ceiling into a guest room of the Redwood Valley home where their young daughter was sleeping.
For two years afterwards the daughter slept with her parents because she was afraid it would happen again and she would be burned, the judgment said.
The wood-fired boiler system was supposed to provide underfloor and radiator heating to keep the Spiteris toasty as well as heating their water. Instead, some rooms had no heating, others had warm and cold spots and the media room that was supposed to be a winter living area could not be used because it never got warm enough.
Even the pantry was affected. When the system was operating it became the warmest place in the house, making it "completely unsuitable for storing food," the judge said.
During the winter of 2011, Adrian Spiteri described the house as bitterly cold and the couple had to get a heat pump installed.
It took three hours to heat the hot water, and at times in winter their children stayed elsewhere so they could be warm and clean, and were able to attend school.
Justice Clark said: "The house was Mr and Mrs Spiteri's pride and joy but the relentless nature of the problems with the heating system has prevented the family from enjoying their new home and the life they planned in it when it was built.
"Mr Spiteri said they are apprehensive every time they light the boiler. He described the effect on their lives as traumatic."
The saga started in 2007 when the Spiteris approached Norfolk Electrical and Mechanical Ltd, a subsidiary of the defendants, then trading as Climatech.
Adrian Spiteri is Maltese and wanted to bring "that essence of Malta" to his new home with tiled floors and underfloor heating, the judgment said. The couple wanted a wood-fired system because they had plenty of wood on a farm block.
The couple paid a $24,000 deposit but from the time the boiler was installed in 2009 there were problems, initially because a valve had been installed the wrong way.
After initial efforts to remedy the issues made no progress and Adrian Spiteri contacted head office, a Climatech representative in Nelson apologised, saying the lack of communication was partly "due to the situation being an embarrassment to him and ignoring the issue".
Consultants approached by the Spiteris said the pipework for the heating had been laid in a "freeform" manner.
After the burst pipe incident in April 2011, followed by another rupture in a pipe above the guest ensuite a month later, the company agreed to replace the plastic pipes with copper ones, but the problems continued throughout 2011.
Justice Clark said the company "effectively walked away" from the issue in 2011.
Before the court, the company accepted it was in breach of its contract with the Spiteris, but said the breach was in the design of the heating system meaning it was "never capable of operating effectively".
It argued that the Spiteris had not filed their case in time and the company had limited liability because of a contract clause.
Justice Clark rejected both arguments and said the couple had contracted for the design and installation of the system. He awarded the Spiteris $303,700 damages as the cost of installing a new, retrofitted underfloor heating system, $20,000 in general damages, and other costs bringing the total to $345,966.
"The Spiteris say they are trapped in relation to their home. They cannot sell the house without heating. And they cannot get a code compliance certificate unless the system is removed or they are able to obtain sufficient money to repair it."
Vanessa Spiteri said the resolution was a relief but it was scary "going up against the big boys".
They had chosen a large company hoping it would offer protection and security if anything were to go wrong. "It's your dream home. You want it all to be really great, no problems.
"We gave them opportunity to put it right and the system just seemed to get worse. Nobody wants to go to court. It's harrowing, it's exhausting, it's expensive."
The experience had been a loss for everyone, and a steep learning curve, but despite friends advice to give up she said "sometimes you've just got to stand up for what you believe in".
"At the end of the day no-one wins from this. Everybody's suffered."
"We've been going through this for such a long time.
"We've had what I believe is a fair result."
Vanessa said people needed to make sure the company they used was registered with the Home Heating Association.
"That company wasn't a member. If they had have been a member it could well have been a different story."