SMRT's legal options depend on staff contracts

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.
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.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

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

On Monday, 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, was 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 about the legal options open to SMRT, lawyer Wayne Ong told The Straits Times yesterday: "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."

He said it did not matter that they 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 employment contract may contain a term which allows SMRT to pursue legal recourse if the employees are found to be grossly negligent in performing their jobs.

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. Professor Tan said: "Ultimately, responsibility for the flooding lies solely with SMRT... The mere threat of and actual resort to legal action may also dramatically backfire, considering the negative public opinion and low staff morale."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'SMRT's legal options depend on staff contracts'. Print Edition | Subscribe