What is the tort of negligence? When can I sue someone for negligent behaviour in Singapore?

One party may rely on the law of negligence as a cause of action and take legal action against another party if he has been victimised by the latter’s negligent behaviour. This is especially helpful if no contractual relationship exists between the perpetrator and the victim so that the victim cannot rely on contractual remedies to recover recompense.

The tort of negligence is a frequent tool relied upon to right a wrong. Negligent behaviour manifests in a great variety of circumstances, ranging from traffic transgressions and medical malpractice to property damage and unneighbourly misconduct.

The 2007 landmark decision in the case of Spandeck Engineering (S) Pte Ltd v Defence Science & Technology Agency by the Singapore Court of Appeal definitively articulated the workings of the law of negligence in Singapore.

To sue for negligent behaviour, several elements must be satisfied.

1)       The Defendant owes the Plaintiff a duty of care;

a)       The Plaintiff must prove that the damage to him was factually foreseeable by the Defendant. For example, if the Defendant threw a box of ice from the tenth floor of a HDB block, it may be factually foreseeable that the box might injure someone.

b)       The Plaintiff must prove that he was physically, circumstantially or causally proximate to the Defendant. For example, a man who throws a glass bottle into the sea in Australia is probably not proximate to a man who steps on and is injured by the same bottle on a Singapore beach. As the law develops proximity factors have since been extended to include control, vulnerability and knowledge.

c)       There must be no public policy considerations against finding a duty of care. For example, the court may find it unwise and too inviting to litigation, to impose a duty of care between floor cleaners who wet the floor, and patrons who slip.

d)       A duty of care may also be found if the Defendant has voluntarily assumed responsibility, or knows that the Plaintiff has placed reasonable reliance on the Defendant. For example, in most cases where a trishaw driver has implicitly promised to deliver his passenger safely to a location, he owes said passenger a duty of care.

2)       The Defendant breached this duty of care;

a)       The Plaintiff must prove that the Defendant acted below the standards of a reasonable man. For example, if a person runs over a pedestrian’s foot on a Segway, the Court will decide whether a reasonably skilled man riding the Segway with due care will be able to avoid the accident.

3)       The Defendant’s breach caused damage to the Plaintiff;

a)       The Plaintiff must prove that the damage to him would not have happened but for the Defendant’s negligent act.

4)       The Plaintiff’s loss as a result of the Defendant’s breach is not too remote;

a)       The Plaintiff must prove that the damage to him was reasonably foreseeable by the Defendant.

5)       The Defendant is unable to raise any defence to the Plaintiff’s action; and

a)       The Defendant may be able to defend himself or lower the compensation he has to pay if he can prove that the Plaintiff was contributorily negligent.

b)       The Defendant may also be able to absolve or reduce his liability where he has given notice to the Plaintiff, that he is not to be held responsible for any negligent act. This may be done verbally, or via a disclaimer on a signboard, to name a few examples. The Unfair Contract Terms Act restricts the effectiveness of these clauses. For a brief discussion of this subject, click here.

c)       He may also defend himself if he proves that the Plaintiff voluntarily accepted the risk.

6)       The Plaintiff’s loss can be proven and quantified adequately.

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