NSF's death and family's bid to sue: Mindef replies

Full-time national serviceman Dominique Sarron Lee died from an allergic reaction to fumes from smoke grenades in a 2012 training exercise.
Full-time national serviceman Dominique Sarron Lee died from an allergic reaction to fumes from smoke grenades in a 2012 training exercise. PHOTO: MINDEF

We refer to the recent reports and letters relating to the late Private Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron ("Family's failed bid to sue SAF sparks debate"; March 10 and "Family of NSF who died will get legal bill slashed"; March 9).

The key findings leading to the death of Pte Lee had been released during the coroner's inquiry in August 2013.

This was a transparent process, taking the form of an open hearing fully accessible to the public and media. The family of the late Pte Lee and their legal counsel were also present, and given opportunities to address any questions that they may have relating to his death to the court.

As part of the process, they were also allowed to pose questions to the two Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) regulars concerned.

The coroner's full findings and conclusion are open for public viewing upon application and approval by the court.

The coroner found that Pte Lee had died from "acute allergic reaction to zinc chloride due to inhalation of zinc chloride fumes" and that the allergic reaction was "unlikely to have been predicted". All these were extensively reported by the local media.

Arising from the coroner's findings of fact, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) decided not to prosecute anyone as the cause of death was an unforeseen allergic reaction that was unlikely to have been predicted.

As such, the AGC informed the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) to consider taking disciplinary action against the servicemen who had breached training safety regulations. Mindef has done so, with penalties consistent with other servicemen who have committed similar offences, including fines and delay in promotions.

In the recent High Court hearing, the court struck out the legal suit by Pte Lee's family against Mindef.

While Mindef recognises that no amount of compensation will make up for the loss of a loved one, a package of financial compensation based on the maximum extent of the compensation framework was offered to the family.

Such compensation is generally two to four times that of the amount provided under the Work Injury Compensation Act for incidents arising from training and operations and is no less than what would have been awarded by the court in cases where compensation was ruled to be payable.

Some members of the public, including the late Pte Lee's family members, have disagreed with the coroner's findings.

They feel instead that the two SAF regulars should bear greater liability for the cause of death and receive greater punishment.

It would be wrong to punish SAF servicemen beyond the level of offence which has been determined by independent and impartial judicial processes. Mindef/SAF would be overstepping its powers and would be legally challenged.

Most importantly, it would be unfair to the two SAF regulars. In particular, the level of punishment has to take into account the coroner's findings that Pte Lee's fatal allergic reaction was unlikely to have been predicted.

Each death of our servicemen is greatly regretted but when these incidents arise, it is even more important that we maintain societal trust and integrity in respecting the due independent judicial processes to determine the facts and mete out the appropriate punishment where required.

The AGC has in the past prosecuted SAF servicemen who have been responsible for causing death due to rash acts or negligence. When they were found culpable, the courts have sentenced them to jail.

In this particular case, the AGC decided not to prosecute anyone.

As we expressed in Parliament in 2012, we extend again our deepest condolences to the family of Pte Lee and are deeply sorry for the untimely and tragic loss of Pte Lee.

We recognise that it is difficult for the family to find closure in this case and will continue to support them wherever possible.

Lim Chuen Ni (Ms)

Director, Public Communications

Mindef Communications Organisation

Ministry of Defence

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'NSF's death and family's bid to sue: Mindef replies'. Print Edition | Subscribe