Widow fails in $1m suit over swimmer's death

SINGAPORE- Despite finding the lifeguards negligent, the High Court rejected a woman's $1 million suit as her husband's death in a National University of Singapore (NUS) pool was caused by his diseased heart.

Even if the two lifeguards on duty had done their job properly, Justice Quentin Loh found that 40-year-old Roland Yeo was "not likely to have survived", given his very poor heart condition.

While admitting he had come to his conclusion "reluctantly", he said in his grounds of judgment issued on Thursday that this tragedy highlighted the dangers of adopting a vigorous exercise regime without realising that one's heart was badly damaged.

"Liability in negligence is fault-based and we cannot allow hard cases to make bad law," he ruled.

Lawyer Jeffrey Beh said yesterday his client, who has two children aged nine and 12, had been left very disappointed by the decision. He added he will discuss with her if further steps should be taken in the case, which began with Mr Yeo's death in 2007.

On June 6 that year, Mr Yeo, an IT manager with NUS, had gone for his weekly lunch-hour swim with friend Er Chee Teck at the university's Sports & Recreation Centre.

At the time, NUS, which owns the Olympic-size pool, had outsourced the provision of lifeguards to Hydro Aquatic Swimming School.

Barely 15 minutes into his swim, Mr Yeo began struggling and sank towards the floor. It was Mr Er who hauled him to the surface.

The two qualified lifeguards, who were NUS students working part-time at the pool, along with others responded to Mr Er's cries for help. But efforts, including the use of an automated external defibrillator, to revive Mr Yeo failed. He was taken to National University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In a 2008 coroner's inquiry, a pathologist cited drowning and heart disease as contributory factors in Mr Yeo's death.

In 2009, the widow, who was not named in the judgment, sued NUS which in turn named Hydro Aquatic as the second defendant. At issue was whether the lifeguards could have averted the tragedy with a more timely intervention. The judge found they had been "clearly negligent". If they had been doing their duty properly, they would have noticed when Mr Yeo stopped swimming and started sinking "feet first with his hands moving as if he was trying to regain the surface".

He added in his 81-page judgment that the two lifeguards should not have been seated together near the entrance turnstile as this would " encourage distracting chitchat" between them.

Yet the medical evidence showed Mr Yeo was in very poor health despite being physically very active. Medical experts said he had suffered "silent heart attacks" before without realising it.

"He had a severely compromised heart... but his illness was not apparent to anyone, including himself," said the judge.

Mr Yeo was prone to suffer sudden abnormal and irregular heartbeat, especially when doing strenuous activities such as swimming. It was this cardiac arrhythmia that incapacitated him while he was swimming, said the judge.

"All three doctors were in agreement that the deceased had a severe underlying condition that meant he was unlikely to survive the combination of a cardiac event and immersion in water."

As the matter is subject to appeal, NUS, speaking through its lawyer K. Anparasan from KhattarWong, declined to make any comment other than saying it was studying the judgment.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES