Punitive damages have 'rule of law implications'

Punitive damages have 'rule of law implications'

The High Court, which declined to award the $500,000 sought by a patient to punish a hospital whose nurse tried to cover up a botched surgery, has explained it did so because of policy considerations and the limits of judicial power.

Private investor Li Siu Lun, 56, (in photo above) had successfully sued Gleneagles Hospital after it admitted the part its nurse played in the cover-up. During the surgery at Gleneagles Hospital in 2006, Dr Looi Kok Poh had severed the nerves on Mr Li's right hand, then reattached them.

Three months later, the doctor told the nurse to alter the patient's consent form to include the extra surgery, which had left the patient complaining of numbness in his hand, without telling Mr Li.

The High Court awarded Mr Li $250,000 in general and aggravated damages against the hospital last week, but turned down his claim for an additional $500,000 in punitive damages.

Such damages - which were expressly claimed here before a court for the first time - are intended to punish and deter the wrongdoer. They are unlike general or aggravated damages which are meant to compensate the aggrieved party.

Mr Li, represented by Senior Counsel Roderick Martin and lawyer Alice Tan-Goh, had argued that despite the lack of local precedents, "the unlawful alteration of medical records have a remarkable consistency of attracting punitive damages in foreign jurisdictions", pointing to London court cases.

But Assistant Registrar Jordan Tan, in his judgment grounds issued on Friday last week, held that the issue of whether to recognise such punitive damages here cannot be uncovered by analysing the judicial record abroad.

"It is a policy decision in which the court needs to choose between competing rationales, in particular, whether damages should be compensatory or whether it could serve other functions."

The registrar added that recognising punitive damages and deciding on the scope and extent of the award would have "rule of law implications". He pointed out the inherent "lack of restraint" on how much to award in punitive damages "creates the tension with the rule of law".

One option would be for Parliament to cap how much can be awarded for punitive damages as has been done in some countries, he noted. "I have no doubt this issue will be taken up another day in a more appropriate case."

vijayan@sph.com.sg


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