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Cambridge City Council (20 008 600)

Category : Environment and regulation > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 14 Oct 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr D complains about how the Council used rat poison at his home, which he says which he says his dog came into contact with, resulting in veterinary fees. We have found there was fault causing injustice. The Council should forward Mr D’s claim for a refund of vets’ fees to its insurer and pay him £100 to acknowledge the time and trouble he has been caused.

The complaint

  1. Mr D complains about how the Council used rat poison at his home in April 2020 which he says incurred vet bills after his dog got access to it. He also complains the Council failed to provide details of the poison or an emergency contact number, causing distress and did not deal with his complaint properly, causing him time and trouble.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Mr D about his complaint and considered the information he sent and the Council’s response to my enquiries.
  2. Mr D and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

What happened

  1. In April 2020 Mr D’s mother reported a concern about rats in their garden to the Council. A pest control officer visited. The officer was aware there were dogs on the property and carried out an on-site risk assessment. He placed the bait box in a gap between a shed and a fence and advised Mr D’s mother to keep pets away from it. The officer checked the box a week later and found the bait had been gnawed. He replenished it.
  2. Two days later, Mr D suspected one of his dogs had eaten some of the poison. He spoke to a vet who asked what the poison was. As there was no information on the bait box Mr D contacted the Council that evening. He says an officer advised nothing that could harm pets would normally be used, but due to supply problems caused by the coronavirus lockdown, an alternative may have been used. A pest control officer was contacted, who confirmed which poison it was and that it was dangerous for dogs. Following treatment, the dog recovered.
  3. Mr D complained to the Council on 28 April 2020 that:
    • The Council was wrong to consider the bait was not harmful to cats or dogs.
    • There was a risk of the bait being transferred out of the box by rodents, and a small dog could get their nose/tongue into the tunnel if they got to the box.
    • There was a lack of information on the box about the type of bait used, causing problems for vets.
    • Some bait had been put loose in the neighbouring garden between decking. Mr D was concerned this could be carried to his garden.
  4. Mr D asked the Council to reimburse his vets bills of about £480 and attached the invoices.
  5. The Council replied on 7 May. It was satisfied that the use of rat poison had been carried out in a safe and considered manner. The Council asked Mr D to obtain blood tests results / written confirmation from the vet of the findings before the Council could determine whether to refund the vets bills. Mr D asked the Council if it would pay for those tests or a report from the vet.
  6. The Council sought advice from a professional body it then wrote to Mr D in June 2020 that the fragments of bait found by the box was common where rodents had fed and that they were an insignificant amount.
  7. Mr D remained dissatisfied and in November 2020 he asked for his complaint to be escalated to the next stage of the Council’s complaints procedure. The Council says it did not receive this request as it went into a junk email folder. Mr D approached the Ombudsman in March 2021 as he had not received a reply.
  8. Following contact with us, the Council sent a stage two response on 29 April 2021. It apologised for the delay. The Council said its deployment of the bait box was in accordance with its procedures. It accepted it had not included details of the poison on the box and in future it would label the bait boxes. It apologised the customer service team had been unable to answer Mr D’s query about the poison and would ensure they were aware of who to contact in an emergency. The Council said it could not determine whether to refund the vets fees without the blood test results and/or report from the vet.
  9. Mr D complained to the Ombudsman.

My findings

  1. At the heart of this complaint is an issue about liability. Whilst I can consider whether the bait box was placed in accordance with the Council’s policies and procedures, the Ombudsman cannot determine whether the Council is liable for any harm suffered by Mr D’s dog. The question of liability is a matter for the Council's insurer, and ultimately the courts, to decide.
  2. Public liability insurance indemnifies councils against claims for compensation for personal injury and/or property damage. The Council has a public liability claims process and I can see no reason why it was not followed in this case. When Mr D asked the Council to refund the vets fees, I consider it should have forwarded that as a claim to its insurer. I find that not to do so was fault.
  3. This has caused delay and time and trouble to Mr D, as the matter could have been resolved in 2020.
  4. However, I cannot say that the fees would have been refunded. There is no automatic right to compensation. Claims will only be settled where the Council could be held legally liable due to negligence. It is for the insurer to consider the evidence and reach a decision on liability. I cannot say what the insurer would decide.
  5. If liability is not accepted and Mr D wishes to contest this, he may do so in court. Ultimately only the courts can determine whether the Council has been negligent.
  6. A claimant can make a claim up to three years after the incident. I therefore consider the Council should forward the claim to its insurers now. This should be done by the Council, not Mr D, as Mr D's relationship is with the Council and not the insurer and it is for the Council to instruct the insurer following notification of a claim.
  7. There is no dispute that there was fault in complaint handling. Mr D’s request to escalate his complaint was lost, causing the response to be delayed by several months. The Council has already apologised and I consider that to be a proportionate and appropriate remedy for any injustice caused to Mr D.

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Agreed action

  1. Within a month of my final decision, the Council has agreed to:
    • Forward Mr D’s claim for a refund of the vets’ fees to its insurer to consider
    • Pay him £100 to acknowledge the time and trouble he has been put to because of fault.

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Final decision

  1. There was fault by the Council. The actions the Council has agreed to take remedy the injustice caused. I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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