Straits Construction Company (Pte) Ltd & Another v Zhao Chuan Wang

JudgeValerie Thean Pik Yuen
Judgment Date05 November 2002
Neutral Citation[2002] SGDC 290
Published date19 September 2003
Citation[2002] SGDC 290
CourtDistrict Court (Singapore)



1 This is a claim arising out of an alleged work accident on a construction site. The plaintiff, Zhao Chuan Wang ('Zhao') was, at the material time, a Chinese national employed as a steel reinforcement worker by the first defendants, Straits Construction Company Pte Ltd ('Straits Construction'). The second defendant, Zhang Zuming ('Zhang') was Straits Construction's subcontractor, who was supervising Zhao at the time of the alleged accident.

The plaintiff's case

2. Zhao contended that on 26 December 1998, at around 10 pm, he was instructed by Zhang to remove metal formwork from an elevator shaft, which protruded 4 metres from the rooftop of a 5 storey multi-storey carpark that was under construction. He fell and injured his spine. His claim was brought under the Factories Act and in negligence on the part of the defendants as employers and/or occupiers.

The defendants' case

3. The defendants denied that the accident happened on 26 December 1998, and denied any liability. In addition, Straits Construction contended that Zhao was not within their employ, but that of their subcontractor, Zhang.

(1) Whether there was an accident as pleaded on 26 December 1998

Evidence of Zhao and Xu Fang Jun

4. Zhao arrived in Singapore in August 1998 and commenced employment for Straits Construction as a steel reinforcement worker on 13 August 1998. After working for a month as a steel reinforcement worker, Straits Construction assigned him to work under the supervision of Zhang for carpentry work. On 26 December 1998, Zhao was working under the supervision of Zhang at the constuction site of a five-storey carpark at Bukit Panjang Ring Road. Around 10 pm, Zhang asked him to climb up to the roof and dismantle the metal formwork of the elevator shaft at the rooftop. Zhao’s evidence was that he asked for a safety belt, but Zhang said none was available. Zhao thus climbed to the rooftop. The elevator shaft was protruding about 4 m above the rooftop of the carpark, but there was no fencing or safety net extending to the full height of the elevator shaft. The light was dim and he was unable to see clearly. He fell. When he awoke, he was being awakened by Xu Fang Jun, another Chinese national, who carried him back to the dormitory.

5. The next morning, with the help of Xu, he reported the accident to Zhang. Zhang told him to seek medical treatment by himself, and said he would report the matter to Straits Construction. Zhao visited a Chinese medical hall near the worksite the same day and went home to rest. Three days later, Zhang warned him that he would not be paid further unless he went back to work. Thus Zhao returned to work on the worksite until 12 May 1999. During this time, he sought treatment at a Chinese medical hall, and waited for Zhang to reimburse him. In early May, he had been assigned to a new supervisor, Chen Jun Hui. When Zhao told Chen about his back pains, Chen told him to consult a doctor in a big public hospital. He thus went to Tan Tock Seng Hospital ('TTSH'). The doctor at TTSH informed him he required surgery, and also fixed an appointment for the surgery for him. Since the fees would be high, he was told to have an employer’s representative accompany him. After the TTSH visit, Zhao informed two senior managers of Straits Construction, Lin Guo Xian and ‘the fat manager’. On 14 May, these two managers took him to a place in Chinatown, where they were met by another manager, Lin Tian Cai. There, after his work permit was taken from him, he was detained for 5 days in a dark room. He was asked to return to China, but he refused as he had not been paid. They were joined by Wang Xin Qian, Zhao’s agent, and they told him his work permit had been cancelled. Eventually he agreed to go, taking $2,000 as his wages and after he signed job cards. He left Singapore on 18 May 1999. After Zhao’s return, he wrote to the defendants several times, but received no response.

6. During Zhao’s cross-examination, he agreed that he was aware of the safety regulations and had passed the safety requirement examination in Singapore. However, the defendants did not supply him with any equipment aside from a safety helmet. He spoke to his supervisor many times asking for a belt. He was told he would be given one later. He was queried about Zhang’s workcards. He disagreed that he did not work on 26 December 1998. For December, he had worked for another, Ah Yu, until 20 December. Thus beginning from 21 December, the portion on the card for the rest of the month was struck out. He was to have a new work card when he started with Zhang. Queried about why he did not go to a doctor trained in Western medicine, his view was that Chinese doctors were superior. He contended that he went to see Zhang on several occasions about the reimbursement of his medical expenses. On one such occasion, Zhang told him his receipts had been torn up and he should not mention it any longer.

7. Another Chinese national, Xu Fang Jun ('Xu'), who was also employed by Straits Construction at the material time, testified. On 26 December 1998, he went to visit Zhao around 10 pm. Being informed by Zhao’s roommate that Zhao was at the construction site, he went to the construction site. There, he found Zhao lying unconscious in a pool of mud. Xu shook him by the shoulders and after about 10 minutes, Zhao regained consciousness. He carried Zhao back to the dormitory.

Evidence from the defendants' representatives

8. Kenneth Loo ('Loo'), a project manager of Straits Construction, testified that Straits Construction were the main contractors of a project at Bukit Panjang, of which the multi-storey carpark was a part. Zhao’s work permit was issued with Straits Construction as employer. However Zhao worked directly under Zhang, who was responsible for his salary, levy, accommodation, medical expenses and return air ticket. Loo had no knowledge of Zhao’s injuries and there was no record of any accident on 26 December 1998.

9. RUM Masum Majumder (‘Majumder’) was the safety officer of Straits Construction. He, too, had no knowledge of Zhao’s injuries, as he did not receive any report of the accident from Zhang.

10. Zhang's evidence was that Zhao did not work on 26 December 1998. He tendered Zhao's work card for December 1998 in court. This card recorded a blank on 26 December 1998, suggesting that Zhao was absent on that date. He contended he had no knowledge of any accident which Zhao may have had onsite and claimed that Zhao did not report any accident to him. Thus, he, too, had no knowledge of the incident.

Medical evidence

11. Dr Kamal Bose's evidence was that the injuries were consistent with a fall from a height, and a 5-storey fall was a possible cause. Dr Bose testified that Zhao needed urgent surgery, and the range would be $10,000 to $15,000 for the relevant operation. When he was questioned about Zhao's ability to work after the accident, he pointed out that different persons have different thresholds for pain. Whether an injury could have been more or less serious was "a matter of speculation". His view was that the injuries were consistent with a fall from a five-storey building. Dr Ng Hor Liang, who examined Zhao on 12 May 1999, also testified that Zhao's compression fracture was consistent with a five-storey fall. Dr Yeo Khee Quan, called by the defendants, agreed that Zhao’s injury was consistent with a fall from a height. His estimate of the cost of the operation required was from $9,000 to $12,000. He was also of the view that even after the operation, Zhao would be unable to lift loads.

Findings on whether the accident happened

12. In the present case, there was a scarcity of documentary evidence relevant to whether a fall happened on 26 December 1998. There was only a work card suggesting that Zhao did not work on 26 December. Zhao's evidence was that he relied upon Zhang to report the case to Straits Construction; and that Zhang had doctored the workcards and destroyed the medical receipts which he gave to Zhang. Any findings as to events on 26 December hinged upon Zhao's and Zhang's testimonies in court.

13. From his appearance and demeanour in court, Zhao seemed to me to be an honest and candid witness. Although the language and interpretation appeared slightly confusing for him, he answered queries in a straightforward manner. His evidence was supported by Xu's discovery of him onsite, and Xu's evidence was also clear and consistent. Counsel for the defendants made much of some inconsistencies between Zhao's evidence, and Xu's evidence. In particular, Zhao stated that he did not dismantle formworks prior to 26 December, but lifted them with the assistance of another, while Xu thought Zhao dismantled formwork. This was a small discrepancy. Both indicated that Zhao was working with formwork. Xu testified that he observed Zhao from the apartments; he could easily have concluded that Zhao was dismantling formwork from where he stood. There was also a discrepancy as to the number of Zhao's roommates. Zhao stated he had 4. Xu stated Zhao had one. However, he also explained that he said that because there was only one in the room when he went to look for Zhao on 26 December 1998. This was a minor detail, not relevant to the accident. Adequate allowance must be given to human fallibility in retention and recollection, and minor discrepancies may be disregarded (see Chean Siong Guat v PP [1969] 2 MLJ 63 , PP v Kalpanath Singh [1995] 3 SLR 564 ).

14. Counsel for the defendants also ridiculed Zhao's preference for a Chinese doctor, and contended that Zhao could not have relied upon Chinese medicine for 5 months. Zhao was cross-examined intensively on this point, and his response that Chinese doctors were in his view more skilful was a candid and straightforward one. Given his limited educational background and his prior experience in China where Chinese medicine is freely practised in major hospitals,...

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