Foreign worker can sue wrongdoer for medical fees

This is even though his employer is legally bound to foot his bills, top court rules

A foreign worker injured in a traffic accident can still recover medical expenses from the negligent driver in a civil suit, even though his employer is legally obliged to foot his medical bills.

Singapore's highest court made this ruling on an important point of law yesterday, in a case involving one of 30 workers who were hurt when the lorry they were travelling in hit the kerb of a road divider.

The Court of Appeal ruled that although the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act imposed a "non-delegable" duty on an employer to bear a worker's medical expenses, this did not preclude a worker from recovering the money from a third party who is responsible for his injuries.

To guard against double recovery, a worker who succeeds in recovering medical expenses from a third party should be required to pay the sum to his employer, said Judge of Appeal Steven Chong, who wrote the judgment.

The other judges were Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang.

The apex court's decision stemmed from a civil claim for damages by Thai national Minichit Bunhom, who suffered facial fractures in the accident, against lorry driver Jazali Kastari and his insurers, Ergo Insurance.

The court said an employer's obligations under the law to pay a foreign employee's medical expenses have no bearing on the separate question of whether the worker can recover the medical expenses from a third party.

His employer, KPW Singapore, had paid his hospital bills of about $15,700 as a "non-recourse" loan.

This means that the worker was to repay his employer after claiming the sum from the lorry driver, but if he fails to recover the money, KPW cannot enforce the loan.

A district judge awarded Mr Minichit general and special damages, but disallowed his claim for the medical expenses. The judge said KPW cannot delegate its duty to bear Mr Minichit 's medical bills by entering into a loan agreement with him. And since KPW was obliged to bear his medical expenses, allowing the worker to recover the sum against the driver would result in double recovery.

Mr Minichit appealed to the High Court, which had the same view as the district judge. Represented by lawyer Simon Yuen, he took his case to the Court of Appeal.

The apex court allowed his appeal, and directed that upon recovering the expenses from the insurer, he was to pay the sum to KPW.

The court said an employer's obligations under the law to pay a foreign employee's medical expenses have no bearing on the separate question of whether the worker can recover the medical expenses from a third party.

These are two distinct legal relationships - one between the employer and the employee, and the other between the wrongdoer and the victim.

The court said there was nothing to suggest that the legislation was intended to affect a victim's right to seek recovery of medical expenses against the wrongdoer.

It added that about 20 of the cases involving the other accident victims concluded with medical expenses awarded to the workers. Other cases were put on hold pending the appeal. "Given our decision, we trust that the remaining pending cases will be satisfactorily resolved," said the court.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2018, with the headline 'Foreign worker can sue wrongdoer for medical fees'. Print Edition | Subscribe