Bishan MRT tunnel flooding: Legal action SMRT can take against ex-staff depends on contract terms

On Nov 27, SMRT said that it had found 13 staff responsible for failing to maintain an anti-flooding system, which led to the tunnel between Bishan and Braddell stations becoming flooded on Oct 7.
On Nov 27, SMRT said that it had found 13 staff responsible for failing to maintain an anti-flooding system, which led to the tunnel between Bishan and Braddell stations becoming flooded on Oct 7.PHOTO: ST READER

SINGAPORE - The legal actions which SMRT could take against two ex-employees linked to last month's MRT tunnel flooding depend on the terms of their contract. The rail operator could also sue for damages caused by negligence, although this will be a challenging course of action, said legal experts.

On Monday (Nov 27), SMRT said that it had found 13 staff responsible for failing to maintain an anti-flooding system, which led to the tunnel between Bishan and Braddell stations becoming flooded on Oct 7, causing a major service disruption. Some of the staff were found to have falsified maintenance records.

Eight were sacked, one was demoted, and disciplinary action, which SMRT did not specify, were taken against another two, it was revealed on Monday.

Vice-president Tay Tien Seng and senior manager Ivan Kok, who quit shortly after the flooding incident, were found to have not exercised sufficient supervision during the seven-month period when records were falsified. On Monday, SMRT said it "reserves its right to pursue legal action against them as may be appropriate".

Asked on the kinds of legal options open to SMRT, Lawyer Wayne Ong told The Straits Times on Tuesday (Nov 28):"If there were duties that the employees should have carried out - as described in their contract - and the employees did not do so, then it could be a breach of the contract."

Mr Ong said it did not matter that the employees had quit as they were contractually bound when the breaches occurred.

Mr S. Sundaram, partner for litigation and dispute resolution at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, said the staff's employment contract may contain a term in which SMRT is allowed to pursue legal recourse if they are found to be grossly negligent in performing their job.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said SMRT could sue for compensation for the damage to and the repair of ill-maintained equipment, if it can be proven that these were the "direct and foreseeable consequence of the staff members' deliberate dereliction of duties or wilful negligence". But this is "an extreme and unlikely course of action, as it is challenging to succeed on this ground in court", and the probability of receiving damages, which may amount to millions, is very low, he added.

Taking legal action may have other repercussions for SMRT.

Prof Tan said: "Ultimately, responsibility for the flooding lies solely with SMRT. Any legal action against former or current employees will not render it any less culpable.

"The mere threat of and actual resort to legal action may also dramatically backfire, considering the negative public opinion and low staff morale."