NSF's death: High Court says why it dismissed suit against SAF

Private Dominique Sarron Lee.
Private Dominique Sarron Lee.PHOTO: MINDEF

SAF needs to protect nation without being burdened by civil liability, judge says

The High Court has explained why it dismissed a lawsuit brought against the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) over the death of full- time national serviceman Dominique Sarron Lee, saying it was "without reasonable prospect of success".

The family of the 21-year-old private tried to sue the SAF for breach of contract of service and two of its officers for negligence after he suffered a fatal allergic reaction to fumes from smoke grenades used during a military exercise in 2012. The case was thrown out in March.

In written grounds released yesterday, Judicial Commissioner Kannan Ramesh accepted arguments by the defendants, who relied on a provision in the Government Proceedings Act indemnifying them from being sued for negligence for deaths and injuries if the acts are certified to be attributable to service.

The judge noted that such an immunity has imposed on the SAF and its officers "an even heavier moral burden" to ensure the utmost care of its charges.

"I am entirely convinced that the SAF and all who command it fully recognise the weight of that burden and do their very best to sedulously discharge it," he wrote.

"However, despite the best intentions and careful and meticulous planning, mistakes can and unfortunately sometimes do happen."

Calling the circumstances of the case "undoubtedly tragic", he added: "I am mindful of the anguish, pain and grief that this has caused Mr Lee's family and all those who cherish him."

But he stressed that the case also concerns the ability of the SAF and its officers to "safeguard our nation and her security" without being "burdened" by civil liability. "It is the responsibility of the courts to give effect to that legislative intention," he wrote.

The court ruled in March that Pte Lee's family would have to pay costs of $22,000 to the three defendants, which the judge yesterday reiterated was "reasonable".

This contributed to a public outcry, with some calling the SAF's handling of the case callous. A fund-raising drive was started to help pay the family's legal costs.

However, six days after the ruling, and following a Facebook post by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, the ministry and the two officers decided to waive their costs.

Dr Ng explained at the time that while the High Court's judgment in awarding the costs was based on sound legal grounds and precedents, there was no need to "add to the pain and anguish" of Pte Lee's family.

He said the SAF "must learn from every accident, fix lapses and improve", adding: "This is the way we honour all those who have given their all to build a strong and honourable SAF."

The SAF also revealed in March that the two officers had been found guilty of negligence in a summary trial in 2013, even though a Coroner's Inquiry and an independent Committee of Inquiry did not find them "directly responsible" for Pte Lee's death.

It said "administrative and disciplinary action" was taken against the two, though it was not clear what punishment was meted out.

Pte Lee's family filed the civil suit last year. Platoon commander Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal was defended by Mr R.S. Bajwa, while safety officer Captain Chia Thye Siong was defended by Mr Laurence Goh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'NSF's death: High Court says why it dismissed suit against SAF'. Print Edition | Subscribe