Who's liable for a workplace accident? High Court decides against multiple entities

Case discusses liabilities among employer, contractor, and third party

Who's liable for a workplace accident? High Court decides against multiple entities

Singapore’s High Court recently dealt with a case involving a construction worker who was injured in a worksite accident when an excavator unexpectedly moved forward and collided with him.

The case raised complex issues of liability and apportionment of fault among the worker's employer, the main contractor of the worksite, and a third party whose adjacent construction site was involved in the events leading up to the accident.

The case highlighted the importance of proper coordination and communication between different worksites, as well as the need for adequate safety measures and supervision to protect workers in inherently dangerous environments.

Workplace accident

According to records, the worker, an Indian national employed by the first respondent as a construction labourer, was assigned to assist in excavation work at the second respondent's worksite on the day of the accident.

He was working alongside an excavator operator, also employed by the first respondent, and was tasked with acting as a banksman. As the work progressed, a truck from the adjacent worksite, operated by the third respondent, arrived and attempted to enter its own site.

However, there was insufficient space for the truck to manoeuvre due to the presence of water barriers surrounding the second respondent's worksite. In the ensuing commotion, the excavator unexpectedly moved forward and collided with the worker, causing him to fall and suffer severe injuries to his right foot and both ankles.

The worker subsequently filed a claim against his employer, the main contractor, and the third party, seeking damages for his injuries.

Who’s responsible for accident?

The worker argued that the accident was caused by the respondents' breach of their common law and statutory duties.

He alleged that his employer failed to implement necessary safety measures, the main contractor did not effectively supervise the work, and the third party's banksman was negligent in directing the excavator operator to move forward without ensuring it was safe to do so.

The respondents, in turn, disputed the worker's account of events and raised various defenses. The employer and main contractor argued that the worker was contributorily negligent for standing in the excavator's blind spot, while the third party denied owing any duty of care to the worker.

The trial judge found the employer liable for the worker's injuries, both directly for failing to provide effective supervision and vicariously for the excavator operator's negligence.

The judge also held the third party vicariously liable for its banksman's negligence but absolved the main contractor of any liability.

The worker was found to be contributorily negligent to the extent of 33.33%, with the employer and third party bearing 56.67% and 10% of the liability, respectively.

Appeal looks at workplace safety measures

Dissatisfied with the trial judge's decision, the worker appealed to the High Court. The appeal raised several key issues, including:

  1. Whether the employer had implemented adequate safety measures in respect of the excavator;
  2. Whether the main contractor breached its duty of care to the worker by failing to provide proper training, exercise supervision, and coordinate with the third party's worksite;
  3. Whether the main contractor should be held vicariously liable for the excavator operator's negligence;
  4. Whether the worker's contributory negligence was excessive; and
  5. Whether the third party's liability should be increased.

Breached duty of care

The High Court found that the trial judge erred in concluding that the employer had implemented adequate safety measures.

In particular, the court held that the employer breached its duty of care by failing to implement a horning system, which would have required the excavator operator to sound the horn before moving the excavator, thereby alerting workers in the vicinity.

The court noted that the horning system was a low-cost and simple solution that could have easily been implemented, and its absence was a significant contributing factor to the accident.

However, the court agreed with the trial judge that the worker had not discharged his burden of proving that the employer was negligent in failing to install cameras to provide the operator with a live view of the excavator's blind spots.

The main contractor's liability

The High Court upheld the trial judge's finding that the main contractor did not breach its duty of care by failing to provide proper training and safety briefings to the worker.

The court also agreed that the main contractor had exercised proper supervision over the worksite by delegating this responsibility to the employer through their contractual arrangement.

However, the court found that the main contractor breached its duty by failing to coordinate arrangements between its own worksite and the third party's adjacent site.

The court emphasized that the main contractor's site supervisor had foreseen potential issues with vehicle movement but failed to establish proper communication channels or make adequate preparations to address these concerns.

On the issue of vicarious liability, the High Court concurred with the trial judge that the main contractor could not be held vicariously liable for the excavator operator's negligence, as the operator was an employee of an independent subcontractor (the employer) and not of the main contractor.

The worker's contributory negligence

The High Court considered the worker's contributory negligence and the apportionment of liability among the parties. The court noted that contributory negligence is a partial defense that reduces the damages payable to plaintiffs who fail to take reasonable care for their own safety.

In assessing the worker's contributory negligence, the court took into account several factors. While the trial judge found the worker to be contributorily negligent to the extent of 33.33%, the High Court did not find this apportionment to be plainly wrong or against the weight of the evidence.

As such, the court declined to interfere with the trial judge's assessment on this issue. The High Court also upheld the trial judge's apportionment of liability between the employer (56.67%) and the third party (10%), finding no reason to disturb these findings on appeal.

This case highlighted the responsibilities and liabilities that can arise in construction site accidents involving multiple parties.

It underscored the importance of employers, main contractors, and third parties working together to ensure the safety of workers in inherently dangerous environments.

The High Court's decision also reminded employers to implement adequate safety measures, such as horning systems, to minimize the risk of accidents. It also stressed the responsibility of main contractors to coordinate and communicate effectively with adjacent worksites to address potential hazards.

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