Mentally incapacitated worker can sue: Court

Apex court upholds ruling that paves way for engineer injured at work to sue for damages

The Court of Appeal has upheld a decision that paves the way for an engineer, who became mentally incapacitated after he was seriously injured at work, to sue for damages.

The appeals court affirmed an earlier ruling that only a person, who is appointed by the court under the Mental Capacity Act to act for a mentally incapacitated worker, can claim work injury compensation on his behalf.

In the current case, Mr Tan Yun Yeow, 37, suffered severe burns after he was involved in an electrical explosion in March 2009.

He went into a coma and, after regaining consciousness, was found mentally incapable of managing his financial and personal affairs.

In 2010, on the basis of a lawyer's letter that his next-of-kin "wishes" to claim compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act (Wica), the Commissioner for Labour assessed he was entitled to $225,000, the maximum sum under the law. An award of compensation under Wica bars a worker from suing for further damages in court.

Then, in August 2012, Mr Tan's younger brother, Mr Rodney Tan, was appointed by the court to make legal claims on behalf of the injured man, who is married with a son.

A string of correspondence between Mr Rodney Tan's lawyer Noor Marican and the Commissioner followed. Mr Marican insisted that Mr Rodney Tan never applied for compensation and that the Commissioner's notice of assessment was null and void.

In September 2013, Mr Rodney Tan, who is also represented by Mr Ramasamy Chettiar, filed a High Court suit seeking $3 million in damages against three defendants, including his brother's employers.

But the Commissioner said the 2010 letter was a valid claim, which would mean that Mr Rodney Tan cannot pursue the suit. Mr Rodney Tan brought judicial review proceedings to quash the Commissioner's decision. After seeking the advice of the Attorney-General's Chambers, the Commissioner's position changed.

In July 2014, she declared there was no valid claim as Mr Tan had no capacity to make the decision in 2010. This prompted his employers to object. Their insurer, MSIG Insurance, brought judicial review proceedings to quash the Commissioner's later decision.

Last year, the High Court quashed the 2010 assessment, ruling that the injured man lacked the capacity to make a choice and only a person appointed by the court can act on his behalf. The insurer appealed. Its lawyer, Mr K. Anparasan, argued that Mr Rodney Tan had the legal standing to claim compensation on behalf of his brother.

Second Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck, acting for the Commissioner, said in his submissions that the insurer was trying to force the injured man to accept compensation he never chose to claim and depriving him of his right to claim for damages under common law.

The apex court, led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, dismissed the insurer's appeal. It will issue written grounds at a later date.

Mr Rodney Tan told The Straits Times that his brother, who is mostly bedridden, can only nod or shake his head in response to questions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'Mentally incapacitated worker can sue: Court'. Print Edition | Subscribe