Paralysed resident sues Sembawang Town Council over walkway mishap

46-year-old had slipped on wet slope near home and fractured his spine

A lawsuit now before the courts is set to become a test case that could define the extent to which a town council is responsible for injuries sustained by residents in the common areas in housing estates. 

Sembawang resident Aw Kian Chow was walking back to his flat in Block 415, Sembawang Drive on a wet evening in August 2008 when he took a tumble on a sloping ramp near his block.

He fractured his spine and became paralysed from the neck down. 

Now, three years down the road, the 46-year-old father of two young children is still bedridden and cannot speak; he also needs life support equipment, regular hospital care and caregivers to turn him on his bed every three hours to drain out mucus and other fluids.

His condition has thus precluded all prospects of holding down a job, and made his wife, a bank officer in her 30s, the family’s sole breadwinner. 

The family has since moved out of the five-room flat in Sembawang into a smaller flat elsewhere so the family can meet his ongoing, hefty medical bills. 

In the High Court suit filed by his wife in his name, Mr Aw is seeking damages from the Sembawang Town Council for alleged negligence. 

In court documents filed by his lawyer N. Srinivasan from Hoh Law, Mr Aw claims the council failed to maintain the walkway to ensure that it is safe and not slippery, among other things.

He is seeking compensation for medical expenses, loss of future earnings and transport costs; he is also seeking damages for loss of pre-trial earnings, pain and suffering. 

The sums sought have not been specified; the court will assess the amount if the suit succeeds. 

High Court claims start at $250,000.

The town council, through KhattarWong Partnership’s Mr P. E. Ashokan, is contesting the suit.

At issue is whether the council had a duty and had done all it could to prevent such a mishap; the sheltered walkway on the ramp and the handrails on either side of it were wet with rain at the time. 

Mr Aw contends that the walkway linking Blocks 415, 415A and 419 is common property which he used daily. Between Blocks 415A and 419, the 3m-wide walkway slopes, rising from 1.5m to 2m above ground over a 20m distance. 

Mr Aw alleges that the council was negligent in failing to lay down non-slip material or paint on the surface of the walkway to prevent slips and falls. 

To back his case, he cites the Town Councils Act, which states that a town council has a duty to maintain common property such as sheltered walkways and keep these in good, clean condition.

Sembawang Town Council, in defence documents filed, has responded by claiming that Mr Aw failed to use the handrails and that he should have stayed close to them while on the walkway, as doing this would have minimised the risk of slipping and falling on a wet, sloping surface.

The mishap was thus solely caused or contributed to by Mr Aw himself, it said. 

The council added that it had hired EM Services, a competent managing agent, to manage the estate. It also said it would file more defence statements later. 

The council’s lawyer, Mr Ashokan, said on Monday that the council was sympathetic towards Mr Aw for the disability he now has, but it “cannot be held responsible for someone who slips and falls during wet weather”.