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Md Sharif Hossain Rana Abdul Malek, a Bangladeshi construction worker, was injured when a piece of timber fell from an unknown height, striking his helmet, back, and shoulder in October 2015 while he was working at a construction site. The 26-year-old man was sent to a specialist clinic where the doctor noted tenderness over his spine in the cervical and thoracic areas; he was given two days of medical certificate. About a month after the accident, he was hospitalised after presenting as confused and disoriented, having been vomiting for three days prior. He passed away in the ICU six days later.
An autopsy was conducted, which revealed that a part of the deceased’s thoracic vertebra was detached. The Coroner later found that the deceased’s death was caused by the spinal injury sustained at the worksite, leading to post-traumatic pain that resulted in seizures that eventually caused brain damage.
Proceedings before the Assistant Commissioner of Labour
A claim under the Work Injury Compensation Act (“WICA”) was lodged by the deceased’s family with the Ministry of Manpower (“MOM”). MOM assessed the claim to be $170,000. The employer and its insurer objected to the claim and challenged that the death was caused by an accident that arose out of and in the course of the deceased’s employment. The matter was heard by the Assistant Commissioner Mr Han Cher Kwang (the “AC”).
Our Mr Lee Ee Yang submitted that the three elements for a work injury compensation claim under the WICA were satisfied, namely that: (1) the deceased suffered a personal injury; (2) the injury was caused by an accident; and (3) the accident arose out of and in the course of employment. The coroner’s report clearly showed a causal link between the accident and the eventual demise of the deceased.
The insurer/employer relied primarily on the medical opinion of an orthopaedic surgeon (“Dr L”), who had no contact with the deceased and based his opinion on the documents made available to him. Although Dr L admitted that he was not an infectious disease specialist, he opined that it was more likely that the deceased contracted a leptospira bacterial infection of the brain that led to death As a result, the insurer/employer claimed that there was no causal link between the accident and the injury sustained by the deceased.
Decision of the Assistant Commissioner of Labour and the High Court
The AC found that all three elements under a WICA claim were satisfied and that the insurer/employer failed to show that a leptospiral infection was the sole cause of death. Relying on the coroner’s report, it was more likely that the spinal injury caused by the accident resulted in the seizures that led to the deceased’s death. The learned AC thus upheld MOM’s assessment and ordered that work injury compensation in the sum of $170,000 be paid to the deceased’s family.
An appeal to the High Court was made against the learned AC’s decision by the deceased’s employer and its insurer (the “Appellants”) and was heard by the Honourable Judicial Commissioner Mavis Chionh Sze Chyi (the learned “JC”).
In the appeal, the Appellants primarily challenged the admissibility of the Coroner’s Certificate as evidence in the WICA proceedings. They claimed that the Coroner’s Certificate made references to other testimonies and statements and was, therefore, not objective in determining the cause and circumstances of the death.
In rejecting the Appellants’ argument, the JC said that the whole purpose of such a Certificate was to set out the cause of death as found by the Coroner based on the evidence available during the inquiry. Moreover, provisions in the Coroners Act clearly contemplate that a Coroner’s Certificate may be admitted in subsequent judicial proceedings as evidence of the facts determined at the inquiry.
In dismissing the appeal, the learned JC found that the AC, in considering all the evidence before him, was justified in finding that the deceased’s family had shown sufficient evidence that the deceased’s “brain damage and consequent death were caused by the spinal injury from the impact of the falling timber”. There was no other documentary evidence to contradict or refute the findings of the Coroner. The medical evidence from Dr L lack credibility given that, inter alia, Dr L himself admitted that he is not an infectious disease specialist and that Dr L conceded on the witness stand that the deceased did not reveal many of the manifestations of neuroleptospirosis.
Significance of Decision
This judgment is particularly noteworthy given that it is rare for a WICA claim to succeed without any witnesses giving evidence at trial. It is noteworthy that the learned JC added that her decision is premised on the facts of the present case and it is not a precedent for a general proposition that in all work injury compensation claims under Section 3(1) of the WICA, a claimant will succeed if he tenders the Coroner’s Certificate (in cases where there has been a coroner’s inquiry into the death), but calls no medical or other witnesses. There is no rigid single rule as to the specific types of witness who must be called or the specific type of documentary evidence which must be produced in order for a claimant to discharge his burden of proof.