The High Court has slashed the $240,000 in aggravated damages awarded to a former Gleneagles Hospital patient to $42,000, making clear that such damages must be proportionate to the sum given for general damages.
An assistant registrar had in 2013 ordered the hospital to pay Mr Li Siu Lun, then 56, the sum for aggravated damages and an additional $10,000 in general damages.
Mr Li, a Hong Kong resident with a British passport, had sued Dr Looi Kok Poh and Gleneagles for a botched operation on his right hand in 2006. The surgeon, whose private practice Hand Wrist and Microsurgical Centre was located at Gleneagles Medical Centre, admitted liability and paid $262,000 to settle his case separately.
Aggravated damages are meant to compensate the victim with a greater sum when the conduct or motive of the defendant "aggravates" the injury done to the victim, hence augmenting the award of general damages.
But the $240,000 awarded was "grossly disproportionate", said Justice Belinda Ang in judgment grounds out on Tuesday.
The hospital had admitted liability after its nurse had altered a consent form, as instructed by Dr Looi, to cover additional surgery following the botched hand operation on Mr Li.
At issue was how much the hospital should pay.
Rodyk & Davidson lawyer Lek Siang Pheng, who represented the hospital, argued that $240,000 "was excessive by any measure".
Justice Ang noted that the award - given among other things for the distress Mr Li suffered over a four-year period - was not referenced to the other $10,000 given to him as general damages.
She found that the sum, which was 24 times the $10,000 for general damages, had "no semblance of proportionality" because the assistant registrar treated "aggravated damages as a free-standing and distinct head of loss".
Justice Ang awarded $21,000 in general damages and twice that sum - $42,000 - as aggravated damages instead, "to ensure that the awards of general and aggravated damages are fair and not disproportionate".
The case is understood to be the first reported here, outside defamation suits, where aggravated damages were awarded by the court.
The court recognised the complexity of the case and the important points of law involved. It ordered that legal costs payable be assessed on the High Court scale despite the revised award, which would have implied costs should have been computed on the lower District Court scale.
Gleneagles chief executive Vincent Chia said on Tuesday that the hospital was sorry for the distress Mr Li went through.
He said Dr Looi is no longer able to practise at any of the Parkway hospitals as his accreditation in all Parkway hospitals here was removed in 2011.
"We note that the court has taken into consideration that unlike Dr Looi, our nurse's actions did not affect the outcome of the surgery or Mr Li's recovery, and had awarded damages that were more proportionate to the nurse's lesser role in the incident.
"We are relieved that our nurse can finally find closure in this matter. We will continue to do our best for our patients."
Mr Li's lawyer, Senior Counsel Roderick Martin, said his client is studying the judgment.
This article was first published on June 4, 2015. Get a copy of Mind Your Body, The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.