Take care of your rights when removers don’t take care
Apparently it’s common practice for removal companies to move possessions at the owner’s risk
Can a removals company deliver your furniture to you – after a cross-country move and maybe a spell in storage – broken, gouged or totally smashed, and then deny all responsibility?
Well, legally, no.
According to the Consumer Protection Act, suppliers are required to exercise the degree of care, diligence and skill as can be expected from a person responsible for managing any property belonging to another. If they don’t, they are responsible for any resultant loss or damage of a client’s goods.
But ask the president of SA’s Professional Movers Association, Dirk Smit, and he’ll tell you: “It’s a common practice – locally and internationally – for removal companies to move possessions at the owner’s own risk.”
It’s up to consumers to make sure that they insure their goods during transit, he says.
“There are imminent risks in moving house which are brought to the client’s attention. If you had to pick up a chair, carry it through five doorways, through the garden and front gate into a truck, transport it 300km over pothole ridden roads and then carry the chair to its final destination, this translates into a risk factor.”
If a porter carrying a box “accidentally trips over a pebble on the path”, that cannot be negligence, Smit said. “Therefore insurance is offered for the unforeseen and imminent risks associated.”
But what about the CPA and a company’s legal obligation to take responsibility for failing to “exercise the degree of care, diligence and skill” with a client’s possessions – regardless of whether the client has insurance or not?
“Negligence must be proven,” Smit said.
Ah. So how does a customer prove that their table leg snapped off as a result of negligence – failure to pad and secure it properly in the van, for example – rather than something “accidental”?
Clearly they can’t.
Helen Brandon-Bicknell has no idea what kind of trauma her beloved baby grand piano – a gift from her late husband – was subjected to after she handed it to Stuttaford Van Lines in East London last May, along with other household goods.
All she knows is she asked the company to wrap and crate it, and when it was delivered to her Cape Town home in November, after six months in storage, it was in a terrible state, despite being delivered in an undamaged crate.
“Something very heavy must have been dropped on the fascia board causing a huge gouge and breaking the frame of the piano, along with the related keyboard and keys,” she said.
A piano expert gave her a written report stating that in his 50 years in the industry, he had never encountered such a badly damaged piano. His restoration quote was for about R37,000.
“It is obvious to me that whoever handled this piano had no knowledge of what they were doing,” he said. “Grand pianos should only ever be stored on their sides.”
Brandon-Bicknell said Stuttaford Van Lines had denied all responsibility for the damaged piano because she had not taken out their insurance.
“Please would you investigate this matter and encourage the company to ascertain how that piano got broken, accept that they made a mistake and pay for the repair,” she asked.
After raising her case with Stuttaford Van Lines, I received a response from the company’s attorneys, stating that based on the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act, they “are not at liberty to divulge any information regarding our client or this case to any third party”.
POPI does not apply to the processing of personal information solely for journalistic purposes. And especially not when a consumer expressly requests a journalist to investigate their personal issue.
The attorney’s response continued: “Any media attention drawn to our business without the necessary correct facts, whilst under investigation, may carry its own recourse. We suggest you communicate with complainant, to validate our communication.”
Brandon-Bicknell told me the company had agreed to make an ex gratia payment for the full amount of the repair.
The Consumer Goods and Services Ombud, in publishing the outcome of a case in which a removals company, contracted to move household contents from Joburg to Cape Town, dropped and broke a porcelain table stand, and then ignored the owner’s complaints, had the following advice for consumers:
“While we acknowledge that it would be wise to insure your goods as the supplier is only liable if they failed to handle the goods with care, diligence and skill, dropping the consumer’s goods cannot be considered reasonable.”
Insure your household goods if you’re moving, because if the removals inbox is anything to go by, you’re in for an uphill battle to get the removals company to pay for the repair or replacement of your damaged goods.
Know that if you take out a removal company’s insurance, it doesn’t cover any boxes you packed yourself. PSA president Dirk Smit said “contents packed by the owner is deemed to not have been packed by a professional. The contents of a sealed box is also not known and therefore the company cannot take responsibility.”
Make sure you do not underestimate the extent of your household contents to avoid a removal company packing your goods and then demanding several thousand rands more before they’ll do the job.
Know who you are dealing with. Smit said his organisation was fielding “numerous” complaints from people who’d made online bookings and paid deposits for moves that never happened. “The companies have great websites but physically don’t exist, or they broker the load.”
His advice: “Check the registration number of the company, VAT registration and get a physical address of where their trucks are parked.”