Private-hire firm's suit against its driver dismissed

Judge rules in favour of man sued by Wolero over contract breach, coercing others to quit

A private-hire operator which sued one of its drivers for over $600,000 for, among other things, breach of a three-year contract had its case dismissed by the High Court.

Mr Sylvester Lim, 40, rented a Mercedes-Benz E200 from Wolero - set up by former employees of defunct cab operator Smart Taxis - in December 2014 for $3,850 a month. Wolero promised Mr Lim and other drivers that they would get at least 110 ferrying jobs a month that would be sufficient to fully offset the rental. If not, the company would compensate the drivers for the shortfall in jobs.

In mid-2015, Mr Lim demanded this compensation. But in response, the company terminated his contract and sued him. It was around then that he also discovered his contract with the firm was illegal.

At that time, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) ruled that "individual parties are not allowed to lease/rent private-hire cars from car rental or limousine service companies to convey members of the public on hire and reward terms". Drivers for ride-hailing apps like Grab and Uber would register themselves as owners of chauffeured service businesses to stay within the rules.

However, since earlier this year, LTA has amended the rule such that drivers who are Singapore citizens no longer need to be registered owners of a chauffeured service business. But they must apply for a Private Hire Car Driver's Vocational Licence.

Wolero had also sued Mr Lim for instigating other drivers to quit. It took up separate suits against four drivers, claiming around $100,000 from each of them.

Senior judge Tan Lee Meng this week ruled in favour of Mr Lim. In a written judgment dated April 24, Judge Tan dismissed the case that Mr Lim had breached his contract with Wolero. He also dismissed the case that the former taxi driver had incited other drivers to return their cars and caused Wolero a loss in earnings.

The judge said that "Wolero was not entitled to terminate the contract on Aug 11, 2015", and that it was Wolero which had breached its hire agreement with Mr Lim.

On whether Mr Lim coerced others to quit, the court heard that he shared what he learnt from official communication with the LTA - that their contracts were illegal - via a WhatsApp group chat. But he made it clear in his messages that it was entirely up to each driver to decide what course of action to take.

The judge awarded Mr Lim $1,890 for the Wolero job shortfall, and $3,000 for a deposit he placed with the company when he started.

The total amount of $4,890 was what Mr Lim claimed from Wolero originally. Judge Tan also awarded him legal costs, which have yet to be determined.

Mr Lim told The Straits Times that he felt relieved. "It's been 11/2 years. I've been anxious, thinking about the case every day," he said. "I regret signing up with Wolero. I'm now driving with Grab and Uber, using my own car."

Wolero, which is still in business, could not be reached for comment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Private-hire firm's suit against its driver dismissed'. Print Edition | Subscribe