On 29 May 2019, the High Court reversed the decision of the Assistant Commissioner of Labour in a Work Injury Compensation case.
In this case, the worker, Abu Samad bin Omar, 62, died of a heart attack while at work. The claimants were his next-of-kin. The Assistant Commissioner at the Ministry of Manpower had earlier ruled that the claimants “failed to establish the causal link between the heart attack and the Deceased’s employment.”
The High Court said that in placing the burden of proof on the claimants, the Assistant Commissioner displayed a “fundamental misunderstanding”, and his decision contained “a substantial error of law on the part of the Assistant Commissioner” (paragraph 45 of the judgement).
Abu Samad went to work as usual on 19 July 2017. He was employed by Colex Environmental Pte Ltd as a driver. At about 9:30am, Abu Samad went to a shed to help three colleagues dismantle wheels from bins. Helping out was apparently a regular occurrence. Abu Samad “commonly volunteered for bin duty, and … the employers knew about his volunteering” (paragraph 36 of the judgement).
He collapsed and died soon after of a heart attack. Doctors told the court that he had had ischaemic heart disease and that he could die at any moment “be it at rest, or with physical exertion” (paragraph 47).
Did this incident come within the scope of the Work Injury Compensation Act? Would the family be entitled to compensation?
Justice Chan Seng Onn recalled previous judgements which had set out three necessary elements. In paragraph 27, he cited them:
(a) the workman has suffered a personal injury (the “first requirement”);
(b) the injury has been caused by an accident (the “second requirement”); and
(c) the accident arose out of and in the course of his employment (the “third requirement”).
Justice Chan said that the first element was easily satisfied. Abu Samad suffered a personal injury: he died.
As for the second element, he said in paragraphs 31(a) and (b) that it too was satisfied:
31(a) First, in assessing whether an event is an accident within the meaning of the Act, it is material to consider this from the point of view of the workman and not from the point of view of one with actual knowledge of the circumstances including any pre-existing medical conditions.
(references in the original to other cases and quotation marks stripped)
Then, in paragraph 31(b):
31(b) This reading is consistent with the ordinary meaning of “accident”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an accident as an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury. An accident is basically an unexpected mishap that happens by chance and is unintentional in nature.
The third requirement is more subtle. The injury has to arise out of and in the course of the worker’s employment. “In the course of” is easier to comprehend. Even so, the judge expanded on it by saying in paragraph 35, with references and quotation marks stripped:
In this regard, WICA is a social legislation which should be interpreted purposively in favour of employees who have suffered injury during their employment. Broadly, a simple test would be whether the accident occurred, as a matter of common sense, while the employee was at work.
In this case, Abu Samad was at work and doing work.
“To arise out of…. employment” is a wee bit more complicated. But helpfully, Section 3(6) of the Work Injury Compensation Act itself sets up a presumption. It says: “For the purposes of this Act, an accident arising in the course of an employee’s employment shall be deemed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, to have arisen out of that employment.”
In other words, so long as the accident arose in the course of employment, it shall be presumed also to have arisen out of the employment, unless it can be shown that the accident had completely separate, non-work causes. As with all presumptions, the burden of proof lies with the party who wants the presumption overcome. Justice Chan said:
38. To rebut this presumption, the burden is on the employer, rather than the claimants, to furnish evidence to prove that the Deceased’s internal medical condition was the sole cause of his heart attack that led to his death.
Referring to the Assistant Commissioner’s written decision, a key part of which is cited here:
Just because the Deceased died at his workplace due to a heart attack, it can’t be said to be work-related short of evidence to show as such. Even if the Claimants’ solicitor could show the Deceased was indeed working, the events that transpired immediately leading to his death must be strenuous enough on the facts to trigger the said heart attack.
Accordingly, on the balance of probabilities, I find that there is an absence of a triggering event connected to the Deceased’s employment in this case. The Claimant has thus failed to establish the causal link between the heart attack and the Deceased’s employment. I therefore dismiss the claim.
45. The quoted passage reveals that while the Assistant Commissioner was cognisant of the s 3(6) WICA presumption which he said was applicable, he did not consider that the burden laid on the employers to furnish evidence to show that the Deceased’s heart condition was the sole cause of his demise. Instead, he stipulated that the burden laid on the claimants to furnish evidence that there were work-related events strenuous enough to trigger the Deceased’s heart attack. This fundamental misunderstanding that the burden laid on the claimants, rather than the employer, is a substantial error of law on the part of the Assistant Commissioner …
Nonetheless, the High Court went on to examine whether there was sufficient evidence furnished by the employer to show on a balance of probablities that the Deceased’s heart condition operated as the sole cause of his death. If it did, the WICA presumption would be rebutted, the Court said.
49. However, the evidence demonstrates that the Deceased was not resting immediately prior to the heart attack that led to his demise. Instead, I am satisfied on a balance of probabilities that the Deceased was helping the trio with removing the wheels of the fourth bin prior to the onset of his heart attack.
Justice Chan said that the Assistant Commissioner was also wrong in interpreting the evidence. The latter had found that prior to the heart attack, there was no evidence of exertion by the Deceased. He was joking and laughing, the MOM Assistant Commissioner wrote. But Justice Chan pointed out that
51. The Assistant Commissioner’s finding is however directly contradicted by the evidence. First, the accident report submitted by the employer on 21 June 2017, just two days after the accident, states that the Deceased was working for his employer and helping out the bin delivery team at the time when he collapsed due to the heart attack, which eventually led to his death…
In view of that, the judge then found that there was exertion on the Deceased’s part (paragraph 59). It was also pointed out that even if hypothetically, Abu Samad could have had a cardiac arrest while at rest — the condition of his heart being so serious — it remained “mere speculation that the Deceased’s death was caused solely by his heart condition” (paragraph 64). This would not be enough to rebut the presumption.
In conclusion, the High Court said the Assistant Commissioner at MOM misunderstood and misapplied the law. Compensation was awarded to the claimants – the next-of-kin of Abu Samad.
The full text of the High Court judgement can be found at this link.