Gursahib Singh v Aquatemp Pte Ltd and others

CourtDistrict Court (Singapore)
JudgeDorothy F M Ling
Judgment Date22 May 2020
Neutral Citation[2020] SGDC 127
Citation[2020] SGDC 127
Hearing Date29 November 2019,04 September 2019,03 September 2019
Docket NumberSuit No 3404 of 2017
Published date16 July 2020
Plaintiff CounselBelinder Kaur Nijar (Hoh Law Corporation)
Defendant CounselJohn Lim Kwang Meng and Alvin Sia (LIMN Law Corporation),Hong Heng Leong (Just Law LLC)
Subject MatterTort,Negligence,Duty of care,Occupier's liability,Contributory negligence,Evidence,Admissibility of evidence
District Judge Dorothy F M Ling: Introduction

This is the plaintiff’s claims for injuries that he sustained from a fall from a ladder while at work. His claims were raised against his employer, the first defendant, and against the main contractors and occupiers of the construction site where he worked. The main contractors and occupiers of the construction site were the second and third defendants, who, at the time of the construction project, were partners of the joint venture, Samsung-Koh Brothers Joint Venture. (The second and third defendants are hereinafter to be referred to collectively as “JV”). The first defendant was one of the JV’s many independent subcontractors for this project.

It is not disputed that the plaintiff had initially made a claim before the Ministry of Manpower under the Work Injury Compensation Act (Cap 354, 2009 Rev Ed) (“WICA”) and had obtained an award.1 However, the plaintiff did not accept the compensation awarded there. Instead, the plaintiff brought his claims before the present court, claiming against the first defendant and the JV.

Facts The parties

The plaintiff is an Indian national who was employed by the first defendant as a construction worker from 20 November 2016 to 27 March 2017. At the material time, he was assigned to work at the construction site at or around Changi Coast Road (“the Workplace”).

The first defendant is a company incorporated in Singapore and whose principal activity is described as “civil engineering work & environment solution”.2 It was the employer of the plaintiff at the material time, and also a subcontractor of the JV.

The JV, constituted by the second and third defendants, was the main contractor and the occupier of the Workplace.

The accident

The plaintiff and the first defendant did not dispute that on 14 March 2017, the plaintiff was instructed to install zinc roofing sheets on the scaffold frame sheltering a container and a generator at the Workplace.3 However, the first defendant averred that the instruction to do that was issued to the plaintiff and his co-worker, Mr Raman Danabal, and not just to the plaintiff.

According to the plaintiff, the zinc roofing sheets that the plaintiff was handling that day were made of iron,4 about 5m in length,5 and weighed about 30kg each.6 These sheets were to be over the scaffold frame, which scaffold frame was over the generator and container which were side by side.7 The plaintiff agreed that the height of the container was about 2.5m.8 The plaintiff further agreed that given the height or length of the container and the zinc roofing sheet, when the roofing sheet is placed against the container, the roofing sheet would rise above the top of the container by about another 2.5m.9

At about 9.15am as the plaintiff was carrying out the said task and “standing in the middle of the ladder, on its third or fourth rung, …the ladder suddenly wobbled”.10 This caused the plaintiff to lose his balance and he fell onto the “concrete ground”.11 As a result of the fall, the plaintiff was injured on his left arm and back. It was not disputed that at the time of the accident, there was nobody holding the ladder.

The plaintiff sued the first defendant and the JV for a breach of their statutory and common law duty of care “in their capacity as employers of the Plaintiff”.12

The plaintiff further sued the JV in their capacity as main contractors and occupiers of the Workplace.

The parties’ cases The plaintiff’s case

It was the plaintiff’s pleaded case that when he was instructed to install the zinc roofing sheets on the scaffold frame, he was “required to use a ladder… leaning against the container as his work platform to carry out the task”.13 In his affidavit, the plaintiff deposed that his supervisor provided him with a ladder to carry out the task.14

He further deposed in his affidavit that “[a]t the time of the accident, there was nobody holding the ladder and nobody on top of the container to receive the zinc roofing sheets.”15 In fact, when it was put to him by counsel for the first defendant, the plaintiff did not deny that no one saw him fall down the ladder.16 He even confirmed that “there was nobody standing nearby [sic] me”.17

Whilst the plaintiff’s Statement of Claim18 was silent as to whether there was anyone at the top of the container to receive the zinc roofing sheets from him, it did state that there was no one “stationed at the foot of the ladder to prevent the ladder from slipping”.19

The plaintiff claimed to be standing on the third or fourth rung of the ladder when he fell.20 In his Statement of Claim, it was stated that he fell from a height of 1.8 metres. Consequently, he sustained injuries which included intervertebral disc bulges and elbow and wrist contusions with their attendant pain and disabilities.

The plaintiff sued the first defendant and the JV for negligence and for their breaching the statutory safety requirements provided in the Workplace Safety and Health Act (Cap 354A, 2009 Rev Ed) (“WSHA”) and its subsidiary legislation.

Further and/or in the alternative, the plaintiff sued the JV “as the main contractors and occupiers of the [Workplace] in failing to take any or any reasonable care to remedy any unsafe work systems or practices… which they knew or ought to know in relation to the breaches…”.21

The first defendant’s case

It was the first defendant’s case that its supervisor, Mr Sukhjiwan Singh instructed both the plaintiff and his co-worker, Mr Raman Danabal, to install the zinc roofing sheets on the scaffold frames.22 They were therefore to work together.

Further, despite what the plaintiff averred, the first defendant raised the defence that there was no requirement and no instruction to the plaintiff “to use a ladder as a “work platform” to carry out the task”.23 The first defendant explained why:24

… each roofing sheet can be held up by a worker while standing on the concrete ground surface, and lifted up to and received by another co-worker standing on the container roof, because each zinc roofing sheet measured 5 metres in length and far exceeded the height of the container of 2.57 metres…

It was also the first defendant’s case that toolbox meetings “which related to health and safety for its workers (including the Plaintiff)”25 were conducted on a daily basis. According to the first defendant, the workers were specifically briefed and instructed on, inter alia, the “buddy system” when using ladders.26 This required them “to involve another co-worker who would hold onto the ladder for adequate handhold”.27 That was why the first defendant had assigned Mr Raman Danabal to work with the plaintiff.

In this regard, Mr Raman Danabal affirmed an affidavit on 5 January 2018 in support of the first defendant’s case28 that he was instructed to work with the plaintiff by being at the roof of the container to receive the zinc roofing sheets from the plaintiff who would pass them to him from below. However, this court was apprised that Mr Raman Danabal left Singapore on or around 30 October 2018. The plaintiff therefore did not have the opportunity to cross-examine him.

To counter Mr Raman Danabal’s affidavit, the plaintiff placed before the court the testimony of Mr Avtar Singh (“PW2”). It was PW2’s testimony that around the period of 14 March 2017, he was operating an excavator at the taxiway of the Workplace which was “more than a kilometer away from [the first defendant’s] store/office”.29 (The store or office was where the plaintiff’s accident happened.) Mr Raman Danabal was “required to assist throughout the working day at the taxiway construction works” as banksman.30 However, this was refuted by the first defendant’s witness, its director Mr Gwyn Neo Zheng (“DW1”), who deposed in his supplementary affidavit31 that Mr Raman Danabal was not a qualified banksman at the time of the accident.32 Mr Raman Danabal only worked at the taxiway at the Workplace as a wheel loader operator on or after 26 July 2017 when he received the relevant certification.33

The first defendant further argued in the alternative that –

the Plaintiff (while standing on the concrete ground surface) should have held up the zinc roofing sheets to Mr Raman Danabal (who was standing on the container roof), instead of allegedly using the ladder as a “work platform”.34

A further alternative argument was that the plaintiff breached “a common law duty of care towards himself”35 when he “failed to exercise a duty of care to ensure that the ladder was placed at a suitable angle against the container wall”.36

The first defendant’s director, DW1, also brought to the court’s attention that the present claim was one of four in one month from 27 February 2017 to 24 March 2017, which involved his workers who all share one dormitory, and were of same ethnicity. DW1 stated in his affidavit that he had “never before encountered such a situation”37 in all his years of being a director. ACRA records38 show DW1 to have been appointed as director on 31 July 2013. The first defendant therefore questioned if the present proceedings were brought in good faith.

It was noteworthy that the first defendant did not impute any liability whatsoever upon the JV.

The JV’s case

The JV admitted that they were the main contractors for the works at the Workplace. However, they denied that they were the occupiers of the first defendant’s “workshop area”39 or what the first defendant had referred to as the first defendant’s “store/office”40, that is, where the accident happened. This was the same area where the generators and containers were.41 (This area is hereinafter to be referred to as “Designated Area”.)

According to the JV and their witness, Mr Farhan Shah Bin Abdul Ghaffa (“DW2”), although the Designated Area was within the Workplace, it was an area “carved out from the [Workplace] and handed over… to the [first defendant] for their exclusive use,...

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