Lai Wee Lian v Singapore Bus Services (1978) Ltd

CourtPrivy Council
JudgeLord Brandon of Oakbrook
Judgment Date10 April 1984
Neutral Citation[1984] SGPC 3
Citation[1984] SGPC 3
Defendant CounselAbdul Rashid bin Abdul Gani and Bryan Ghows (Herbert Oppenheimer Nathan & Vandyk)
Plaintiff CounselNigel Murray and V Ramakrishnan (Kingsford Dorman)
Published date19 September 2003
Docket NumberPrivy Council Appeal No 53 of 1982
Date10 April 1984
Subject MatterQuantum,Measure of damages,Global award for personal injuries,Damages,Personal injuries cases,Appeal against award for prospective loss of future earnings

This is an appeal by the plaintiff in a personal injuries case. It relates only to the quantum of damages awarded. The award was made in the High Court of Singapore by Wee Chong Jin CJ and was upheld on appeal by the Court of Appeal of Singapore.

On 15 August 1978 the appellant sustained serious injuries when she was thrown off a bus on which she was travelling as a passenger.
The bus was owned by the respondent and operated by their servants. On 31 August 1979 the appellant issued a writ against the respondent claiming damages on the ground of their servants` negligence. Before the trial the parties agreed that liability should be apportioned as to 85% to respondent and as to 15% to the appellant. They also agreed on the amount of special damages at S$24,861.40, which included $24,000 for loss of earnings at $600 per month from the date of the accident till the date of trial. The sum of $600 per month was a net sum, based on a gross income of $680 per month. The only issue at the trial was the amount of general damages. At the end of the trial the learned Chief Justice gave judgment in favour of the appellant for 85% of $146,917.40. He itemized the damages in the following manner:

Pain and suffering $ 45,000

Loss of amenities $ 40,000

Loss of future earnings $ 37,056

Special damages (agreed) $ 24,861.40

Total damages $ 146,917.40

Four witnesses, including two medical witnesses, were called on behalf of the appellant, and in addition some medical reports and other documents were admitted by agreement between the parties.
After the evidence had been concluded counsel for both parties addressed the court and made submissions on, inter alia, the amount which should be awarded for loss of future earnings. Counsel for the appellant submitted that the appropriate award under that head would be $135,000. Counsel for the respondent contended for $37,056. The learned Chief Justice awarded $37,056, but without giving any explanation of his reasons for doing so. In fact he made no statement at all of the grounds of his judgment.

The failure to state the grounds of judgment is very much to be regretted.
The Rules of the Supreme Court of Singapore deal specifically with this matter, in O 57 r 5 which provides:

(1) When a notice of appeal has been filed, the judge who gave the judgement or made the order must, unless the judgment was written, certify in writing the grounds of such judgment or order; but delay or failure so to certify shall not prevent the appellant from proceeding with his appeal. [Emphasis is added.]

The need for a judge to state the reasons for his decision is no mere technicality, nor does it depend mainly on the rules of court.
It is an important part of a judge`s duty in every case, when he gives a final judgment at the end of a trial, to state the grounds of his decision, unless there are special reasons, such as urgency, for not doing so. No special reasons exist in this case. An award of damages for personal injuries, particularly where the injuries are of the serious nature suffered by the present appellant, is a matter of great importance to the parties; especially to the plaintiff. The parties are entitled to know the judge`s reasons; so are any appellate courts in the event of an appeal. In the present case, neither the parties nor the Court of Appeal nor their Lordships` Board can tell what conclusions the judge drew from the evidence or, except by inference, what process of reasoning led to his award.

Unfortunately, the judgment of the Court of Appeal is brief and almost devoid of reference to the facts, so that their reasons for upholding the judge`s award are obscure.
The notice of appeal and the petition of appeal to the Court of Appeal stated that the appeal was only against that part of the award giving $37,056 for prospective loss of future earnings, and that it was on the ground that that part of the award was inadequate. The respondent cross-appealed on the ground that the assessment of loss of amenities in the sum of $40,000 was excessive. The judgment of the Court of Appeal consisted of a statement of the appellant`s date of birth, a narrative of the amount of the judge`s award and the grounds of the appeal and cross-appeal, and the following passage which contains the whole of their reasoning:

We have considered the arguments of both counsel in respect of loss of future earnings and loss of amenities. We are of the view that what really matters in cases of damages for personal injuries is the global figure finally arrived at by a trial judge even if he has calculated the damages under a number of recognized heads. If the global figure arrived at is, in the particular circumstances of each case, reasonable and fair then we do not think that any appellate court would increase or decrease a component item of damage on the basis that such item is low or excessive. In the instant case the sum arrived at for loss of amenities is $40,000 and that for loss of future earnings is $37,056 computed on a multiplier of ten applied to a base figure of $400. We ourselves think that perhaps a multiplier of ten is not adequate considering that the appellant was born on 22 July 1955. However, we are also of the view that the award of $40,000 for loss of amenities is somewhat generous in all the circumstances of the instant case. On the whole we think that these two items balance each other off to the extent that in our view the global figure of $146,917.40 arrived at is on the whole a fair assessment of the damages for personal injuries suffered by the appellant in the instant case.

Their Lordships regard that explanation as entirely inadequate in a case where the trial judge had given no explanation at all.

Before considering the facts of the appeal in more detail, their Lordships will refer to a question of general importance which arises.
Mr Rashid on behalf of the respondent, submitted that the Court of Appeal had rightly held that what matters is the global figure and that, if the global figure was reasonable and fair, an appellate court should not increase or diminish a component item of damages on the basis that item was either too low or excessive. He sought to support that contention by reference to the advice of this Board, delivered by Lord Diplock, in Paul & Anor v Rendell (1981) 55 ALJR 371. It is of course true that at the end of the day the total sum awarded is what matters to both parties. But that does not mean that the component items do not have to be separately considered. They are the necessary parts which make up the whole, and the only proper way of deciding whether the global award is too low or too high is by assessing the separate items and arriving at a fair total: see Lim Poh Choo v Camden and Islington Area Health Authority [1980] AC 174 and Jamil bin Harun v Yang Kamsiah [1984] 1 MLJ 217 decided by this Board on 13 February 1984. Of course the assessing judge has a considerable range of choice because many of the variable elements in the damages cannot be precisely quantified. This applies notably to the plaintiff`s loss of future earning capacity, the assessment of which `involves a double exercise in the art of prophesying not only what the future holds for the injured plaintiff but also what the future would have held for him if he had not been injured`: see Paul v Rendell at p 372. But if the award for loss of future earnings, or for any of the other items, is so far out of line with what the appellate court considers appropriate as to indicate that the assessing judge has erred in p rinciple, and if the substitution of an appropriate award for that item would make a substantial alteration in the total award, then the appellate court has the duty to make the substitution and to alter the total accordingly.

Their Lordships now turn to consider the item in the judge`s award in respect of the appellant`s loss of earnings capacity.
That is the only item now in issue, as the respondent is not cross-appealing against the award for loss of amenities as being excessive. The facts which appear to be material are these. The appellant is a young woman, born on 22 July 1955. She was aged 23 at the date of the accident, and 26 at the date of the trial. Before the accident she had worked as a free-lance teacher or tutor and her net earnings, as agreed for the purposes of the special damages, were $600 per month. As a result of the accident she suffered very severe injuries. Her purely physical injuries were summarized in a report by Dr Don who was the physician in charge of Tan Tock Seng hospital when the appellant was referred to him shortly after the accident. His summary in a written report dated 24 June 1981 was as follows:


(a) Difficulty in ambulation causing handicap in mobility and effective communication from one place to another. In addition there is the social embarrassment of an awkward gait. She will also be prone to falls.

(b) Difficulty in using the right upper limb especially for writing which has affected her job as a tutor in Mandarin.

(c) The neurogenic bladder is a social embarrassment to her.

Dr Don also gave

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