Chan Heng Wah v Peh Thiam Choh

JudgeA P Rajah J
Judgment Date29 September 1987
Neutral Citation[1987] SGCA 14
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 76 of 1985
Date29 September 1987
Published date19 September 2003
Plaintiff CounselChettiar Karuppan and Leslie Chew (Murphy & Dunbar)
Citation[1987] SGCA 14
Defendant CounselAbdul Rashid (Khattar Wong & Partners),Christopher Lau and Anne Loke (Lau Loh & M Karthigesu)
CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
Subject MatterLoss of life,Measure of damages,Loss of earnings for 'lost years',Appropriate multiplier,Damages,Whether interest on damages to be awarded,Available surplus

Cur Adv Vult

(delivering the judgment of the court): At about 7am on 31 July 1980, a motor taxi driven by the first defendant along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5 in the direction of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 collided into a motor-car driven by the second defendant which was travelling along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 in the direction of Marymount Road. The second defendant`s sister, Miss Chan Sui Keng, who was a passenger in the car driven by him, was fatally injured in the collision. Arising from the accident, the appellant, Chan Heng Wah, as the administrator of the estate of Chan Sui Keng deceased, brought this action against the first and second defendants claiming damages. The two defendants on the first day of hearing before FA Chua J in the High Court admitted liability in the proportion of 90% thereof on the part of the first defendant and 10% thereof on the part of the second defendant. The parties at the trial also agreed on the following amounts of damages, namely:

(a) a sum of $6,500 for loss of expectation of life;

(b) a sum of $3,000 for funeral expenses, and

(c) a sum of $600 for loss of use of the car.

The appellant also claimed damages for loss of earnings for the lost years.
On this claim, the learned judge awarded a sum of $125,000. (See [1984-1985] SLR 741 .)

At the time of her death, the late Miss Chan Sui Keng (the deceased) was 20 years of age and was a second year medical student in the National University of Singapore.
She had very good results in her `O` and `A` Level Examinations and was awarded a government scholarship to study medicine at the University and was bonded to work for the government for eight years on completion of her medical studies. At the date of the accident she had completed her first year examination and her results were of average standard. The learned judge held that in all probabilities she would qualify as a doctor. Having reached that conclusion he, however, discounted any prospect of the deceased reaching a specialist level on the ground that that attainment was too speculative. For the same reason he also disallowed the claim for pension and gratuities. He rejected the contention made on behalf of the appellant that the deceased`s income should be determined on the basis of a mean between a medical officer`s salary and Grade A Superscale salary. He held that the prospective earnings of the deceased should be at a level of a medical registrar and computed her net earnings at that level as follows:

Monthly salary of registrar $ 3,275.00

NWC element per month $ 493.48

Monthly salary and NWC wage supplement $ 3,768.48

Gross annual earnings including 13th month payment $48,990.24

Add: Contribution to CPF by employer

(at the rate then prevailing) $12,247.56


Less income tax $ 4,743.46


He took that sum of $56,494.34 as the annual multiplicand and then proceeded to make the necessary deductions for the deceased`s personal living expenses, which he was obliged to do.
In doing so he followed the decisions of Webster J in White v London Transport Executive [1982] 1 QB 489 and the Court of Appeal in England in Harris v Empress Motor Ltd [1984] 1 WLR 212 and he adopted the concept of available surplus propounded by Webster J and approved by the Court of Appeal and took 20% of $56,494.34 as the available surplus. Next, the learned judge adopted a multiplier of 11 which he considered proper, and applying the multiplier to 20% of $56,494.34 he arrived at a sum of $125,000 as the damages for the loss of earnings of the deceased during the lost years.

Lastly, the learned judge following the decision in Ban Pet Hock v Ong Ah Ho [1966] 2 MLJ 253 disallowed interest on both the general and special damages awarded.

This appeal is against that part of the judgment awarding damages for loss of earnings of the deceased during the lost years and disallowing interest on the damages awarded.
The issues that emerged are as follows: (i) the assessment of prospective earnings of the deceased; (ii) the assessment of available surplus on such prospective earnings; (iii) the relevant multiplier applicable, and (iv) interest on the various amounts of damages awarded. Prospective earnings of the deceased

The learned trial judge considered the level of a medical registrar`s earnings as the appropriate prospective earnings of the deceased.
It was contended by Mr Karuppan on behalf of the appellant that this approach was wrong. He relied on the case of Lai Chi Kay & Ors v Lee Kuo Shin [1981] 2 MLJ 167 . There, the plaintiff, Lai, who was from Hong Kong and as a fourth year medical student, sustained extensive brain injuries in an accident for which the defendant was wholly to blame, and the learned judge in assessing the prospective earnings of Lai adopted as a reasonable and fair basis a sum representing the mean between the maximum and the minimum salaries in the Hong Kong medical service. In the instant case, the learned judge was not persuaded to adopt the mean between a medical officer`s salary and Grade A Superscale salary. But the basis he adopted in arriving at the prospective earnings is not wrong. He discounted all the speculative elements and made an assessment on the basis of what he considered to be fair and reasonable. All that can be said is that he had adopted a conservative approach and the amount he assessed was on the low side. But on that ground we would not be justified in interfering with his assessment. The amount, in our view, was not manifestly or excessively low. Assessment of available surplus

In Pickett v British Rail Engineering Ltd [1980] AC 136 it was held, inter alia, that in assessing damages for loss of earnings during the lost years there should be deducted from the total earnings the amount the deceased would have spent upon his own living expenses and pleasures, as these would represent an expense that would be saved in consequence of his death.
Lord Wilberforce said, at p 151:

... the amount to be recovered in respect of earnings in the `lost` years should be after deduction of an estimated sum to represent the victim`s probable living expenses during those years. I think that this is right because the basis, in principle, for recovery lies in the interest which he has in making provision for dependants and others, and this he would do out of his surplus.

Similarly, Lord Salmon said, at p 154:

I think that in assessing those damages, there should be deducted the plaintiff`s own living expenses which he would have expended during the `lost years` because these clearly can never constitute any part of his estate. The assessment of these living expenses may, no doubt, sometimes present difficulties, but certainly no difficulties which would be insuperable for the courts to resolve - as they always have done in assessing dependency under the Fatal Accidents Acts.

Perhaps, the most helpful statement of law in general terms on this point is found in the speech of Lord Scarman in Gammell v Wilson [1982] AC 27 at p 78, where he said:

The problem in these cases, which has troubled the judges since the decision in Pickett`s case AC 136 has been the calculation of the annual loss before applying the multiplier (ie the estimated number of lost working years accepted as reasonable in the case). My Lords, the principle has been settled by the speeches in this House in Pickett`s case. The loss to the estate is what the deceased would have been likely to have available to save, spend, or distribute after meeting the cost of his living at a standard which his job and career prospects at time of death would suggest he was reasonably likely to achieve. Subtle mathematical calculations based as they must be on events or contingencies of a life which he will not live are out of place: the judge must make the best estimate based on the known facts and his prospects at time of death.

The question invariably turns on what expenses and how much should be deducted to meet `the cost of his [the deceased`s] living at a standard which his job and career prospects at the time of death would suggest he was reasonably likely to achieve`.
This was considered and discussed at great length in two recent cases, namely, White & Anor v London Transport Executive [1982] 1 QB 489 and Harris v Empress Motors Ltd [1984] 1 WLR 212.

In White & Anor v London Transport Executive [1982] 1 QB 489, the deceased at the time of his death was a single man and lived with his mother and stepfather.
While employed by the defendants, he died in an accident at work. At the time of his death, he was 25 years of age and...

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