High Court overrules commissioner and orders $180k payout

The High Court has reversed an Assistant Commissioner of Labour's decision and ordered a $181,421 compensation payout to the next of kin of a dead worker.

Mr Abu Samad Omar, 62, who had been suffering from ischaemic heart disease, had collapsed suddenly at his workplace and died later in hospital in 2017.

The case threw up a key issue for the court's decision in relation to work accident compensation under the relevant law: Did Mr Samad succumb because of his medical condition or was the death an accident that arose "out of and in the course of his employment"?

Compensation would be payable to his next of kin under the latter situation but not if the sole cause was his medical condition.

The Manpower Ministry had in October 2017 assessed that $181,421 was payable as compensation to Mr Samad's next of kin but the insurers of the employer, Colex Environmental, objected.

NTUC Income Insurance Co-operative claimed his death was caused by his medical condition and not caused or aggravated out of and in the course of his employment.

The matter went before the Assistant Commissioner for Labour who dismissed the next of kin's case as they failed to show the "causal link" between the heart attack and Mr Samad's employment.

On the fateful morning of July 19, 2017, Mr Samad, after reporting to work, had breakfast with three colleagues who later went to a shed to remove wheels from green refuse bins. After about 30 minutes, Mr Samad went to help them unscrew the wheels of a bin. All of a sudden, he collapsed.

His next of kin, represented by lawyers Kelvin Tan Sia Khoon and Sara Ng, appealed to the High Court where Justice Chan Seng Onn held, among other things, that "the question in dispute is whether the accident (that is, the heart attack) arose out of and in the course of the deceased's employment".

 

He found, after reviewing the circumstances, the accident "clearly arose in the course of his employment".

In judgment grounds issued on Wednesday, the judge noted that under the Work Injury Compensation Act, it is presumed the accident arising in the course of the employment shall be deemed to have arisen out of that employment, unless rebutted.

"As a result, the heart attack arose out of the deceased's employment," the judge ruled.

Justice Chan, in reviewing the evidence, found the presumption had not been rebutted.

He said there was inadequate evidence to show Mr Samad's heart condition was the sole cause of his death, noting the three colleagues corroborated that he was exerting himself before the heart attack.

The judge also noted the medical evidence did not show it was "unlikely" the strain would have triggered the heart attack.

If so, then the employer and insurer, defended by lawyer Appoo Ramesh, would have succeeded in their claim. Justice Chan made clear the burden was on the employer to show the heart condition was the sole cause of his death and that it was not for the claimants to show there were work-related events strenuous enough to trigger Mr Samad's heart condition.

"This fundamental misunderstanding... is a substantial error of law on the part of the Assistant Commissioner," said Justice Chan.

The judge described the mood of that morning in July 2017 before Mr Samad collapsed as "jovial".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2019, with the headline 'High Court overrules commissioner and orders $180k payout'. Print Edition | Subscribe