Engineer to get damages even though he was taking short cut in shipyard

If a trespasser gets injured on your property, can you be held liable?

Yes, in some cases, said the Court of Appeal as it ruled that an engineer who was hit by a mooring cable while taking a short cut through a shipyard should receive damages.

Mr See Toh, 54, sued the landlord and two other companies after the 2008 accident, but his claims were rejected. Now, however, the appeals court has decided that the firm responsible for the cable should bear 50 per cent liability under the law of negligence.

And in a landmark ruling, it also said that all such claims in future should be brought under this law alone.

The decision is significant because, at the moment, people in this situation can also sue under the law of occupiers' liability.

But both sets of laws overlap, leading to unnecessary confusion. For example, Mr See Toh sued two of the defendants under the law of occupiers' liability and all three under negligence.

In judgment grounds released yesterday, Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah said the case "poses the question whether two disparate sets of rules are strictly necessary". He said the law of negligence should be used because it looks simply at whether the owner has taken reasonable steps to ensure that his premises are safe, as well as his proximity to the person who is injured.

Occupiers' liability, however, deals with how much responsibility the owner has over a visitor or a trespasser - with the level of care he owes depending on how case law defines who is trespassing and who is merely visiting.

Justice Rajah compared the situation to a "Gordian knot" - meaning one that is virtually impossible to untie. He said the time was ripe for Singapore to cut this knot rather than attempt to unravel it.

"Prior Singapore case law relying on traditional common-law rules on occupiers' liability should no longer be followed," he said.

The apex court - also comprising Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon - abolished the law of occupiers' liability, which has been subsumed under the law of negligence.

Mr See Toh had been sent to a shipyard in Tuas Basin Close to service the radar equipment of a tug boat on Feb 13, 2008.

But he ended up at the wrong shipyard and entered the neighbouring lot where the vessel was located through a gap in a wire fence. Along the way, he was badly injured after being hit by a mooring cable owned by a company called Asian Lift.

He then sued this firm, landlord Ho Ah Lam Ferrocement and another company called Lal Offshore Marine.

The court found that Asian Lift was the only one of the three that had any control over Mr See Toh's injury. It said the firm owed a duty of care to him and did not take reasonable steps to prevent the accident. The court also found that Mr See Toh was 50 per cent to blame as he was an experienced man and should have entered through the main gate and been cleared by the security office.

All three judges issued written grounds which supported the decision. The amount of damages that Mr See Toh is entitled to will be decided at a later date.

He was represented by lawyer Suresh Dhamodara while Ho Ah Lam, Lal Offshore and Asian Lift were defended by lawyers M. Nagaraja, S. Selvaraj and Magdalene Chew respectively.