Driver who had stroke found liable in accident

The accident in Geylang occurred at about 11.10pm on Sept 19, 2014.
The accident in Geylang occurred at about 11.10pm on Sept 19, 2014.PHOTO: SHIN MIN

Judge rules that driver, who has since died, did not wholly lose control of vehicle

Driving home after supper, a retiree had a stroke, lost control of his car and crashed into a Geylang coffee shop, injuring three people.

Pivotal in the court case that followed was whether the stroke exempted the driver from liability for the accident, an issue the judge hearing the case said had apparently not been ruled on before.

"It would appear that, in Singapore, the position is open and has not been decided yet," District Judge Lee Li Choon said in judgment grounds last month.

After considering the objective and subjective approaches of English precedents, the court eventually held that the 68-year-old driver, Mr Tan Seng Huat, was liable for damages as he did not wholly lose control of the vehicle despite suffering the stroke.

"The various pieces of evidence suggest that (Tan) did not lose control over the use of the left side of his body, for example, and that he could and indeed did use his left hand to steer the vehicle out of harm's way," said Judge Lee.

The accident occurred at about 11.10pm on Sept 19, 2014: Mr Tan's car mounted the kerb on the left side of Geylang Lorong 9 and crashed into the coffee shop. One of the three victims of the accident, Ms Stephanie Tang, 40, had serious head injuries and fractures. Her child and Mr Poh Kok Chun, 30, sustained less severe injuries.

Mr Tan did not stop after that. He kept driving along the one-way street before colliding with an oncoming car when he reached Sims Avenue, the main road.

Mr Tan died in August 2016 before the trial commenced and his daughter, Ms Tan Su San, was named as the representative defendant in the case.

All three victims who sued the defendant separately have agreed to be bound by the decision in the lead suit.

Lawyers Mahendra Prasad Rai and Dean Salleh, representing the vehicle insurers, mounted the defence of automatism, arguing that Mr Tan had suffered a stroke just before the accident which affected the right side of his body.

They added that if he had lost total control of the vehicle, then the accident could not have been avoided and he was not liable.

Taking into account English precedents, the trial judge had to decide whether Mr Tan met either the objective legal test for "total loss of control" or the subjective one of a reasonable man being unaware of his medical condition, and suffered that condition which impaired his ability to drive, thus establishing the defence of automatism.

The plaintiffs, represented by lawyers Dominic Chan, Johnston Lee and Daniel Ng, urged the court against using the subjective test, citing public policy reasons among other things as to why the other test should be preferred.

The judge was convinced by such policy reasons, noting that "the objective test better ensures that compensation is not taken away from innocent victims due to subjective conditions or criteria that exist that are totally out of their control".

It emerged from evidence at the trial that Mr Tan would have had some control over the left side of his body and there was nothing to show he could not have used his left hand or left leg, for example, to control the car, said the judge.

"The medical and non-medical evidence points to the conclusion that the haemorrhage/stroke did not cause the defendant to wholly lose control or entirely eliminate the defendant's responsibility at the time of the ( accident)..." added the judge.

Judge Lee ruled Mr Tan was 100 per cent liable. Damages payable will be assessed separately.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2018, with the headline 'Driver who had stroke found liable in accident'. Print Edition | Subscribe