Injury out of scope covered by WICA provisions

Incisive Law Workplace Safety

Whether “something in fact transpired in the course of his work which made the injury occur when it did” is crucial to compensation claims
In a recent High Court decision, the Singapore High Court allowed the appeal brought by an employer’s insurer against an assessment of S$272,500 compensation awarded against it by the MOM in accordance with the Workman Injury Compensation Act (“WICA”). The claim arose after a construction worker was found motionless at his place of work, later diagnosed to have suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage (“ICH”) and remained in a coma since.

There were two grounds of appeal:

(i) that the Notice of Assessment (“NOA”) filed by the worker’s wife was null and void because it was not made within 12 months of the incident; and (ii) that there was no evidence that the worker’s condition arose in the course of his employment. We will first discuss the second (and arguably more pertinent) ground, (a) No evidence that the worker’s condition arose in the course of employment. The Court was satisfied that the worker had in fact suffered from hypertension and had left his condition untreated for many years.

Although the spirit of WICA is to provide compensation to a worker for injuries sustained in an accident at his workplace even if there is no one at fault for causing that injury, or even if he had himself been responsible for the mishap that caused him injury, the thin line that the court draws is premised on whether there was any evidence that something in fact transpired in the course of his work which made the injury occur when it did . No such evidence in this case. Thus compensation claim cannot succeed.

The Court went on to draw an analogy between this tragic case of ICH and the hypothetical scenario of an employee suffering a stroke or heart attack at home, unless the employee who suffered the heart attack or stroke suffered it at his workplace after something had transpired that made the injury occur when it did.

In the writer’s view, notwithstanding the Court’s analogy, in light of the advent of alternative work arrangements it remains to be seen whether evidence that an employee who had a pre-existing condition suffered a stroke or ICH triggered by something that transpired from work albeit outside of a conventional workplace, would give rise to a successful compensation claim.

(b) The validity of the NOA
When the wife first filed the NOA in 2014 she had not been made her husband’s legal deputy. She was only appointed as deputy in July 2015. As such, the first NOA was technically a nullity. While she filed another NOA in 2016 the insurer challenged this because it was filed 33 months from the date of the incident.

The High Court held that even though the NOA/claim was filed out of time, it would not be necessarily barred if it is found that the delay was occasioned by a mistake, absence from Singapore or some other reasonable (or “understandable”) cause.

In this case, although the delay was for a period of almost three years, the Court noted that this was because (by and large) it was only when a later 2016 case was published that it became clear that it is imperative for a claimant to be a properly appointed deputy at the time of claim. The delay in this case was thus reasonable in the wider sense of being understandable.

In conclusion, while it can be seen that “out of time” claims filed by an injured employee’s family may still succeed, technical lapses will render the entire process lengthier and costlier (in this case, the matter went through two assessments before the Assistant Commissioner for Labour and one appeal before the High Court) and eventually hinges entirely on judicial discretion as to whether the technical lapse was reasonable. Hence, it is always prudent to seek prior legal advice so as to ensure that a claim is filed in a timely and accurate manner, avoiding technical challenges.