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NUS settles $55m lawsuit over fire caused by gas leak

NUS settles $55m lawsuit over fire caused by gas leak

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 21 Dec 2020
Author: K.C. Vijayan

The case is among the latest of negligence lawsuits settled before they proceed to trial, averting more legal costs and saving time.

Three defendant companies have settled a lawsuit with the National University of Singapore (NUS), which had claimed $55 million in damages over an extensive gas-leak fire in a laboratory at the NUS Kent Ridge campus in 2012.

The terms of the settlement reached by NUS with Air Liquide Singapore and the two other defendants are confidential and the agreed sum payable cannot be disclosed.

"All parties have managed to settle the matter amicably out of court through mediation. The suit has therefore been discontinued," said an NUS spokesman in response to The Straits Times' queries.

NUS had sued the three defendants over the afternoon blaze at its Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (Seris) on Aug 10, 2012.

It took firefighters nearly five hours to douse the flames at the ground floor of Block E3A.

The blaze caused NUS to spend more than $46 million to rebuild a laboratory and replace equipment at the institute.

NUS, in its High Court lawsuit, had alleged the defendants' negligence when undertaking tasks on the Seris premises.

The fire was caused by a leakage of silane - a colourless, gaseous and flammable compound - which ignited when a vent valve was displaced at the valve manifold box.

Seris conducts industry-oriented research and development in solar energy conversion and occupies four floors of the seven-storey building.

The case is among the latest of negligence lawsuits settled before they proceed to trial, averting more legal costs and saving time.

Lawyers contacted said at least seven out of 10 negligence cases they handle, ranging from accident to medical, are settled on mutually agreed terms, either through mediation or out of court.

"If it is settled at first instance when letters of demand are presented, the deal inked is without admission of liability or without prejudice. If it goes on to a lawsuit being filed, and successful mediation follows, then the settlement terms can be confidential, depending on the nature of the case and respective parties' requirements, and the matter ends there," said veteran lawyer Gino Hardial Singh, founder of Abbots Chambers.

"Before Covid-19, the figures were better in terms of settling early, but now I have more cases going for trial and/or damage assessment."

In addition to cost and time efficiencies, parties also tend to settle through mediation to avoid the glare of publicity, said WhiteFern managing director K. Anparasan.

"This is especially so in negligence and personal injury cases where most want to avoid the media and prefer to settle privately," he added.

Law director Priya Pillay of Niru & Co said an amicable resolution that is just, reasonable and equitable and reached via a settlement, is "in itself not a bad outcome as going through the vagaries of the entire litigation process may not in itself result in the closure that parties often hope to achieve".

She argued that often no one really "wins" at the end of litigation, as everyone pays a price. "Litigation, taken to its end, can also be a very painful process for many. For example, in medical negligence cases or where the negligent act has resulted in death - there can never be any real 'closure'. Hence, one looks for the best possible outcome in a bad situation," she said.

But settling cases and avoiding a court trial is not without challenges, such as where the case is complex or medical experts from abroad are involved, said lawyers.

Where the negligence claim involves a serious personal injury, it is "inherently difficult to settle the case", said lawyer Jocinda Wong from East Asia Law Corp.

"First, one would have to cross the hurdle of establishing liability. Things get difficult if the other party is criminally prosecuted as the criminal decision may be relevant to your case in court.

"Second, one would then have to cross the hurdle of assessing the damages," she added.

Ms Wong cited a recent case, handled by her firm, which took about eight years from the date of the injury to her client to the decision date on liability in July this year.

In this case, a lorry hit her client and two others at a pedestrian crossing on Nov 6, 2012. One victim died in the accident. The client underwent medical treatment for her injuries, with the effects still being experienced today.

The lorry driver was prosecuted and convicted in January 2016, and a subsequent appeal against the conviction and sentence was dismissed in the High Court.

The civil court process was extended pending the outcome of the appeal as well as other interlocutory proceedings.

Ms Wong added that the trial on liability started in July last year and ended in January this year as there were many witnesses involved, and the oral decision was rendered on July 3.

In the decision grounds issued last month, the district court allowed the claims by the client, pre-school teacher Cheryl Edward, and found the defendant, driver Sun Xin Jian, and his employer 92.5 per cent liable for the accident injuries, with damages to be assessed.

The court held that Ms Edward was 7.5 per cent to blame in contributing to the accident.

"Perhaps only one or two out of 10 negligence cases that we handle will go to trial," said Ms Wong.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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