Court: Don't treat work injury lawsuits as 'game of chance'

Lawyers and workers advised to assess cases carefully, consider work injury compensation

The High Court, in rejecting a negligence claim by an injured worker, advised lawyers and employees to assess their cases carefully before choosing to sue instead of claiming under the work injury compensation scheme.

"The worker should not view the common law claim as a 'game of chance' to gain more in the event of a successful claim. He will end up with nothing, despite having suffered an injury, if his claim cannot be established," said Judicial Commissioner Dedar Singh Gill.

In his judgment released yesterday, he dismissed the appeal of Mr Mookan Sadaiyakumar, who had sued his employer for unspecified damages after several of his fingers were crushed in a workplace accident in August 2016.

The Indian national worked for recycling company Kim Hock Corporation, which burns waste wood in boiler furnaces to produce energy.

Ash from the furnace falls through rotary valves, which may stall when metal objects get lodged in the housing of the valves, the court heard. Workers are sent to remove the objects before the furnace is restarted.

The plaintiff alleged that on the day in question, his supervisor told him a particular valve had tripped. He said he opened the chamber and was removing a short steel bar when the valve suddenly "came back to life", crushing his fingers.

The employer, however, contended it was not possible for a tripped valve to come back to life unless a series of steps were taken.

The supervisor said the worker had gone to the wrong valve, which was unfortunately still in operation.

In February, a district judge rejected the worker's claim that the valve had come "back to life". The judge found he had injured himself through his own carelessness and had to bear 50 per cent of the responsibility. The judge said the employer had to bear the rest of the blame for not having an automatic tripping system to stop the machine when the chamber is opened.

Both sides appealed.

The firm, represented by Mr Ramasamy Chettiar, argued the worker had not said the valve system was unsafe and had no evidence to support this in any case.

The worker, represented by Mr Shanker Kumar K, said the district judge was wrong to conclude he had gone to the wrong valve.

The judicial commissioner allowed the employer's appeal, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove it had been negligent.

He noted there was no evidence that industry practice required such a mechanism to be installed. There was also no indication such a mechanism was available and the employer failed to obtain it, he said.

The judge said: "It is with a heavy heart that I have ruled against the plaintiff's claim."

He noted the Work Injury Compensation Act (Wica) provides a no-fault compensation scheme for workplace injuries. But the claim must be made within a year of the accident.

"The duty of counsel is to advise an injured worker on the appropriate course of action to take by carefully weighing the relative pros and cons of a Wica claim vis-a-vis a common law claim," he said. A worker may believe he can get a larger payout from a lawsuit, but "the job of counsel is to closely scrutinise the evidence and assess whether all the elements of a claim in negligence can be satisfied".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2019, with the headline Court: Don't treat work injury lawsuits as 'game of chance'. Subscribe