SINGAPORE'S courts can hear cases of compensation for Singaporean victims of traffic accidents which happen in Malaysia, two High Court judges have ruled recently in separate judgments.
The two cases are the first to surface here where the appropriateness of the Singapore courts as the forum to settle such accidents happening across the Causeway has been challenged.
Both Justices Tay Yong Kwang and Choo Han Teck, in two separate judgments released within a few days of each other, made clear that the law relating to negligence on the roads is "essentially the same" in both countries.
In both cases, the judges noted that liability for the accidents was not an issue and the only question before the courts was how much the payout should be.
In this regard, both judges felt the victims should be compensated based on "local conditions".
In one case, Singaporean Teo Cher Teck was injured in a car accident in Johor Baru in January last year when a Malaysian driver rear-ended his car. He repaired it here and was also treated here.
Through lawyer Anuradha Tiwary, he sued the driver Goh Suan Hee, for damages in the Singapore courts.
Mr Teo, 33, a civil servant, was with his then-pregnant wife and his child at the time of the accident.
Mr Goh's lawyers Lynette Chew and Sue-Ann Lim from Harry Elias Partnership argued that the case should be heard in Malaysia as the accident happened there and the defendant lives there.
Among other things, it emerged that the method of computing damages in Malaysia was different from the method here. Dependency claims in Malaysia are codified in statute law unlike here, where it is based on the precedents set from cases heard before. There would therefore be a difference in the amount awarded.
Justice Choo agreed there would be a difference in the amount awarded to Mr Teo, but for different reasons.
He felt that Mr Teo should be compensated for what he had lost and what he would lose in Singapore. "There is also a subtle but appreciable difference between getting an award in Malaysian currency after having taken the cost of living in Singapore into account and an award that is made directly in Singapore," he said.
The Singapore dollar is now more than double the value of the Malaysian ringgit.
An earlier case involved the death of a 43-year-old Singaporean woman when a tour bus she was in crashed into the rear of a lorry on the North-South Expressway in June 2006. At that time, she was heading to Singapore from Penang with her husband Ismail Sukardi, 49, and three of their children.
Mr Ismail, through lawyer Niru Pillai, took up a claim against the Malaysian bus driver and the Malaysian transport firm.
Justice Tay also made the point about the two nations' different costs of living.
The judge said the victim had been working and living in Singapore and it is only right her dependants seek damages "assessed according to local conditions".
Justice Tay added that where Malaysian law on damages works to Mr Ismail's disadvantage compared to Singapore law, it was only right that the defendants, and their insurers, should be the ones to "bear the detriment rather than the victims of the negligence".
In both cases, the defendants were insured by Pacific & Orient Insurance Co.
The insurer has decided to appeal Justice Tay's ruling in Mr Ismail's case to the Court of Appeal. But it is deciding whether to appeal Justice Choo's decision.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 10, 2008.
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