Compensation claims: Role of driver and passengers will be probed
Such issues came up amid ongoing public interest in the sports car crash at Tanjong Pagar Road on Feb 13.
If you voluntarily get into a car knowing there are risks involved, and end up in an accident, the amount - and result - of your compensation claims may be affected.
Insurance and criminal lawyers told The Sunday Times some of these risks include an inebriated driver, intention to speed or race, or even illegal modifications to the vehicle.
These factors could lead to the car insurance company rejecting liability, leaving it to the driver's estate to pay off any claims.
Such issues came up amid ongoing public interest in the sports car crash at Tanjong Pagar Road that killed all five men inside, on Feb 13, the second day of Chinese New Year.
Local legal practitioners experienced in handling car accidents said that in traffic accident cases, the passengers' families can bring claims against the driver under the Motor Vehicles (Third-Party Risks and Compensation) Act.
Claims consultant Joee Chong from Amarick Gill LLC said these could comprise bereavement, funeral expenses, loss of future earnings, loss of financial support to family, pain and suffering, and loss of amenities.
The claimants must establish liability against the driver.
Ms Adeline Chong from Legal Ink Law Corporation said that although it is uncommon for passengers' liability to be contested, the driver's legal team may counter using the defence of contribution or "volenti".
The defence of contribution involves asking if there had been neglect to take proper care for one's own safety.
The doctrine of "volenti" holds that a person who knowingly puts himself in a dangerous situation cannot sue for any resulting injuries.
If supported by facts and successfully argued, added Ms Chong, such defences could either erase altogether, or reduce, the degree of the driver's culpability as well as the court's award of damages.
For example, said veteran lawyer Amolat Singh, the success of an accident claim may be impacted if it can be proved that the passengers were aware that a car was going to be engaged in dangerous acts like speeding or racing - but consented to boarding it anyway.
Central Chambers Law Corp's Ramasamy K. Chettiar said another line of defence could be formed around a passenger accepting a lift while knowing the driver had consumed enough alcohol to be unable to drive properly and safely.
Or if, knowing he would be given a lift in the car, he still accompanied the driver on a bout of drinking which eventually affected his own clear thought and perception.
Mr Gurdeep Singh Sekhon from KSCGP Juris LLP said that not wearing a seat belt could also amount to willingly assuming risk and lead to a reduction in damages.
Mr Amarick Gill said claims are typically forwarded to insurers, who will engage lawyers to negotiate a settlement.
But he noted insurance companies may repudiate claims if the driver is found to have broken policy terms and conditions.
Drink driving, for one, is a common exclusion in motor insurance policies in Singapore.
Mr Amolat Singh said: "The insurance company can also avoid liability if a car is illegally modified, as this may affect its stability and structural integrity."
Ms Adeline Chong explained that under the law, the motor insurer is obliged to pay the court's award of compensation to the passengers' families in the event of death from a road traffic accident.
But it would then recover the outlay from the driver's estate, if there is justification to reject policy coverage for the driver.
Mr Amolat Singh said: "That may be very tough as the driver may not have much money to pay off anyone.
"The claimants should wait for the coroner's inquiry as that would help them get a better picture since the police will present their findings and outcome of investigations."
Ms Chong agreed, noting such an inquiry could take up to a year.
With high-value claims - where accident reconstruction experts help derive finer details for evidence - the entire case could take anywhere from three to six years to be seen to conclusion, she said. Should families decide to go the way of civil claims in court to seek compensation, they will need to commence action within three years of the accident.
She added: "(But) it's now common practice to consider mediation, especially if parties are keen to find an amicable resolution without subjecting themselves to what may be a stressful court process."
Mr Gurdeep Singh said that in his nearly 30 years of handling motor accident claims, less than one per cent ended up in trial.
He added: "We are able to, most of the time, settle it out of court because it's less painful for the families.
"Most insurers are fair... the idea is not to ask for the moon but at the same time, also not to settle for anything which is not reasonable."
Pointing to the Tanjong Pagar case, he added: "There are... five families who are not going to celebrate Chinese New Year for the rest of their lives. You just can't imagine the pain."
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.