Last week, an SMRT train collided with a stationary train near Joo Koon MRT station, injuring 38 passengers.
One of the first things that come to mind is: when there is an accident on public transport like that, can the victims sue SMRT for compensation?
Practically speaking, the 2 issues the court deals with when granting compensation for personal injury claims are:
- Amount of compensation
In order to obtain compensation for a personal injury, the victim has to prove that somebody else is liable (i.e. at fault) for his injury.
For example, if you accidentally fell while exercising at home alone, twisting your ankle, it is unlikely that you can hold someone else responsible for your injury.
A common way of pinning liability on somebody else for your injury is through the the law of negligence. Essentially, the argument is that that other person had been negligent (i.e. failed to take care), and his negligence resulted in the accident which caused your injury.
For a person to be negligent against you, he must have breached his duty to take care when dealing with you. That person must therefore owe you such a duty in the first place.
For example, a driver is under a duty to not endanger road users with his vehicle. If he causes a traffic accident, he will have breached his duty of care and will have to compensate accident victims who bring claims against him. Such compensation can be made either through his insurance, or out of his own pocket.
Sharing of liability
In some cases, even though the other party caused the accident, the victim may be partly to blame for his injury as he himself failed to take sufficient care.
This is known as contributory negligence – the victim’s own negligence contributed to the injury he suffered. As a result, he will have to share in some of the liability for his injuries as well.
The court will examine the evidence and decide how responsible each party in the accident was for the victim’s injuries. It will then apportion (i.e. divide) liability between these parties accordingly.
For example, if liability is apportioned 70-30 in the victim’s favour, then the victim will only receive 70% of the compensation he claimed for.
Thus the main question for liability, in relation to the Joo Koon train collision, is likely to be whether SMRT has been negligent. And if it was negligent, how much liability it should be apportioned.
Lawyer Ray Louis, of Ray Louis Law Corporation, is of the view that SMRT is likely to be entirely at fault.
“In this case, the passengers in the train will not likely be contributorily negligent as the fault of the accident is likely to be wholly attributed to SMRT. [Victims who sue are] therefore likely to receive 100% of the amount of compensation quantified.”
Amount of Compensation
The amount of compensation that each injured passenger can claim will depend on the seriousness of their injuries. Generally, the more serious the injury, the higher the claim.
Mr Louis explains:
“Claims will include medical expenses and pain and suffering, which refers to the pain or discomfort that the injured individual has suffered [as a result of his injury].
The pain and discomfort can be physical or mental, possibly including emotional distress or anxiety attacks.
Other claims may include, subject to the doctor’s findings and seriousness of injuries, pre-trial loss of earnings, loss of future earnings, loss of earning capacity and future medical expenses.”
Apart from determining what to claim for, victims will also need to prove the amount that they should be entitled to for each claim.
Some claims can be quantified more easily based on, for example, medical bills which have already been incurred. However, others which are more speculative in nature (e.g. claims for future medical expenses) may be more difficult to quantify.
Case Study: 2011 Negligence Lawsuit against SMRT
In a case heavily covered by the local media, Thai teenager Nitcharee Peneakchanasak fell onto the train tracks and was hit by an oncoming train at Ang Mo Kio MRT station. One of her legs was severed while the other was amputated, resulting in her needing to use prosthetic legs for the rest of her life.
Ms Peneakchanasak later sued SMRT and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) for $3.4 million. She argued that SMRT had been negligent by failing to ensure that the MRT station was safe. This was partly because there were no platform screen doors at the MRT station where the accident occurred.
The court found that SMRT and LTA were not liable for Ms Peneakchanasak’s injuries. This was partly because she had fallen onto the tracks on her own and that she had not been pushed. There were also no crowd control issues.
Further, just because SMRT had not installed platform screen doors did not mean that they had not taken sufficient care. This was because there were other safety features in place to keep the MRT station reasonably safe.
The court therefore held that neither SMRT nor LTA had been negligent, and Ms Peneakchanasak lost her lawsuit. On the other hand, if victims in the Joo Koon train collision were to sue SMRT for compensation today, the situation might be different depending on whether SMRT is found to have been negligent. After all, being hit by an oncoming train is very different from being caught in a train collision.
Fortunately, the injuries of the victims in the Joo Koon train collision are unlikely to be as serious as Ms Peneakchanasak’s. And hopefully their claims could be settled out of court, instead of turning into full-blown lawsuits.
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