Apex court to hear compensation lawsuit in rare case

Mr Ng's house (front) and the house of his neighbour, Mr Munib (rear). The judge decided that the Court of Appeal should review the criteria defining "ultra-hazardous activity" where the duty of care owed cannot be delegated to the contractor.
Mr Ng's house (front) and the house of his neighbour, Mr Munib (rear). The judge decided that the Court of Appeal should review the criteria defining "ultra-hazardous activity" where the duty of care owed cannot be delegated to the contractor. ST FILE PHOTO

Homeowner whose earlier appeal was rejected gets okay to take the matter to top court

When homeowner Ng Huat Seng won a lawsuit against a contractor and its director who damaged his property during demolition works on a neighbour's unit, it was effectively a " paper judgment".

Esthetix Design failed to pay the $136,796 in damages and costs awarded in the State Courts last year to Mr Ng as it was apparently in financial difficulties and its insurers had repudiated liability for the company.

Mr Ng also obtained a default judgment against the company's owner Steve Lim in 2013 but to no avail as he did not show up in court.

He found it was not practical to pursue enforcement proceedings, such as winding up, as the costs of doing so were not likely to be recovered.

His next move however - seeking compensation from the neighbour for the contractor's negligent acts - is set to get a hearing at the top court after the High Court on Wednesday gave the go-ahead upon hearing the application from Senior Counsel N. Sreenivasan and lawyer Tan Cheow Hin.

The move is rare, as appeals for cases like Mr Ng's end at the High Court and cannot proceed for further appeal unless the judge who heads the case gives permission on grounds that points of law are involved.

The case arose after Esthetix carried out demolition works on a three- storey unit in Jalan Lim Tai See located behind Mr Ng's house in 2011.

Owner Munib Mohammed Madni had hired the company to turn his existing house into a three-storey detached structure with a basement and swimming pool, but debris from demolition works broke window panes, damaged four air-conditioner condenser units and cracked the backyard tiles.

Although successful in his negligence suit in the State Courts against Esthetix, Mr Ng failed in court to make Mr Munib liable for the damage as well.

Mr Ng appealed to the High Court but Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon last month rejected the move, making clear that property owners cannot be expected to supervise what contractors do.

"It would be intolerable if the law were to hold that all landowners who seek to construct homes on their property would have a duty to look continually over the shoulders of the independent contractors they hire," said the judge then.

But the judge noted this was the first case where "the extra-hazardous" exception was considered at length as to whether the nature of the activity was so dangerous that the duty of care owed could not be delegated to the contractor.

The judge approved the application by Mr Ng's lawyers for the Court of Appeal to review the existing criteria defining an "independent contractor" as well as what makes for "ultra- hazardous activity".

It is understood the questions of law framed for the apex court have important implications for landed home owners here where most are located in very close proximity to each other.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2016, with the headline 'Apex court to hear compensation lawsuit in rare case'. Print Edition | Subscribe