Teng Ah Kow and Another v Ho Sek Chiu and Others

CourtCourt of Three Judges (Singapore)
JudgeChao Hick Tin J
Judgment Date20 Sep 1993
Neutral Citation[1993] SGCA 67
Citation[1993] SGCA 67
SubjectGas explosion in kitchen,Adverse inference in failing to call witness,s 116(g) Evidence Act,Evidence,Presumptions,Res ipsa loquitur,Negligence,Whether restaurant proprietors and gas supplier liable,Duty of care,Whether res ipsa loquitur applicable,Tort
Defendant CounselGenevieve Tan (Allen & Gledhill),Benedict Chan and Chan Yuen Leng (Goh Poh & Pnrs)
Plaintiff CounselKaruppan Chettiar and Lalita Seenivasan (Murphy & Dunbar)
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 108 of 1992
Publication Date19 Sep 2003

Cur Adv Vult

This is an appeal against a decision of the High Court dismissing a claim by the plaintiffs for personal injuries suffered on account of the negligence of the defendants. It was agreed between the parties at the trial that only the question of liability need be determined at that stage, with damages to be assessed by the registrar if the need arose.

The first and second plaintiffs, Teng Ah Kow (`Teng`) and Kwok Chuan Yuen (`Kwok`), were employed by the first and second defendants as cooks in their restaurant business carried on under the name of Sun Kum Leng Restaurant. The plaintiffs started work there two months before the accident, although they had considerable previous experience elsewhere as cooks. The third defendant was the supplier of gas (in cylinders) to the restaurant. The gas cylinders were connected by pipes to a stove with five burners where cooking was carried out by the plaintiffs.

On 13 September 1986 an explosion and fire occurred in the kitchen when Teng was turning on a gas cylinder in order to enable Kwok to cook. Both persons suffered severe burns. The plaintiffs alleged that the first and second defendants were negligent in, inter alia, (i) failing to provide and/or maintain safe appliances for the plaintiffs` use or (ii) failing to provide a safe system of work. The plaintiffs further pleaded that they would rely on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. As against the third defendant, the plaintiffs alleged that he had supplied a gas cyclinder to the restaurant which he knew or ought to have known had a faulty valve/nozzle (host and connector knob) or had failed to maintain the said gas cyclinder in good working order.

In their defence, the first and second defendants denied that they were in any way negligent and pleaded that if they were liable to the plaintiffs, they would look to the third defendant for indemnity and/or contribution.

At the hearing below, the third defendant issued a third party notice against Mobil Oil Singapore Pte Ltd claiming indemnity or contribution from Mobil Oil in the event that the third defendant was found liable to the plaintiffs. Mobil Oil is not a party to this appeal.

The kitchen equipment

In the words of the learned trial judge, the physical state of the kitchen where the plaintiffs worked was as follows:

The kitchen of the restaurant in which the plaintiffs were employed as cooks by the restaurant was rectangular in shape and about 30ft by 15ft. It had a door towards the right end of the longer side of one wall and another across the kitchen to the left in the shorter wall. Against the wall opposite the longer wall which had a door in it, and in the corner with the shorter wall which had a door, was the stove. The stove was equipped with five burners. Next to the stove was the refrigerator. The gas cylinders which fed the burners in the stove with gas were placed against the shorter wall opposite the shorter wall which had a door in it. According to Teng, the gas cylinders were about ten feet from the stove.

There were five gas cylinders in all which fed gas to the stove ... Each of the five gas cylinders was connected separately to a simple metal tube or pipe which ran along the wall and behind the refrigerator to the stove from where individual connections were made separately to each of the five burners. Each burner was fitted with a pilot light (and) ... a switch. There was a main safety switch fitted in the metal tubing leading from the gas cylinders to the stove ...

The connection of the five gas cylinders to the single metal tube or pipe ... was effected by a metal screw and nut joint ... from which was led a hose of about 3ft in length. At the other end of the hose was attached a connector knob ... The five sets of hose and connector knobs, one for each of the five gas cylinders, were permanently attached to the single metal tube or pipe.

The piping system of feeding gas from the gas cylinders to the stove was installed by the third defendant. The gas cylinders, each of about 31U2ft in height, were always kept in an upright position. On the top of each gas cylinder was attached a contraption called a regulator valve. A nozzle protruded sideways from the regulator valve to which the connector knob was screwed. The topmost part of the regulator valve was the hand control knob, which was attached by a screw to a spindle or threaded shaft. When the knob was turned anti-clockwise or clockwise, the spindle or threaded shaft would be moved up and down. A stud-like device was attached to the bottom end of the spindle or threaded shaft, on which was a washer to prevent the spindle or threaded shaft from being screwed out of the regulator valve as well as to seal the gap between the spindle or threaded shaft and the outercasing of the regulator valve. The underside of the stud-like device was the stud onto which the critical part of the regulator valve, a plug or O-ring component, was slotted.

The operation of the O-ring component and the spindle or threaded shaft was further explained by the learned judge as follows:

The O-ring component is made up of three component parts, that is, a rubberized ring called the `O` ring held between two metal rings to form one unit. The underside of the O-ring component is packed with a synthetic substance which gives when the spindle or threaded shaft is screwed tight into place over the `seat` at the bottom of the shaft into which the spindle or threaded shaft screws in. Thus the gas in the cylinder is locked in when the hand control knob is turned clockwise screwing the spindle or threaded shaft and the O-ring component downwards into place over the seat. When the hand control knob is turned anti-clockwise it raises the spindle or threaded shaft and the O-ring component upwards clearing the side opening to the nozzle so that the gas can now escape through the nozzle and the hose connected to the nozzle by the connector knob to the system.

The spindle or threaded shaft and the O-ring component are locked in place by a locking nut which is a largish nut with several rows of threads and ... is tightened at manufacture with a torque of 900kg per centimetre. Both expert witnesses were agreed that the locking nut cannot be loosened by hand. Some tool like a spanner and considerable force would be required to loosen the locking nut. Although two and a half turns anti-clockwise of the hand control knob will open the regulator valve fully it cannot be turned further as it then turns on the locking nut which has the same threading but because of the torque on the locking nut further pressure by hand on the hand control knob...

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