SINGAPORE: The two Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers sued by the family of the late Private Dominique Sarron Lee have “statutory immunity” against legal action, wrote Judicial Commissioner (JC) Kannan Ramesh.
In grounds released on Tuesday (Jun 28), JC Ramesh outlined why in March this year he had thrown out a negligence suit brought by the family of Pte Lee. The full-time national serviceman died from an acute allergic reaction to fumes released by smoke grenades during an exercise in 2012.
A Committee of Inquiry later found Captain Najib Hanuk Muhammad Jalal, Pte Lee’s platoon commander, had breached Training Safety Regulations (TSR) by detonating six smoke grenades – three times the limit specified in the TSR. The officers involved in the exercise were also punished with fines and delays in promotions.
IMMUNITY WHEN ACTION IS CONNECTED TO OFFICER’S DUTIES
However, since Captain Najib’s actions were “intrinsically connected to and a result of the execution of (his) duties in the conduct of the exercise … which he performed as (a) member of the SAF”, he is statutorily immunised from legal action, JC Ramesh wrote.
Under the Government Proceedings Act, members of the SAF “are not burdened by the prospect of legal action while training or while conducting operations”. This immunises members of the SAF from liability when an incident is connected with the execution of the member’s duties, the JC stated in his judgment.
In Pte Lee’s case, the actions of Captain Najib and Major Chia Thye Siong, the Chief Safety Officer for the drill, were connected to their duties in the conduct of the exercise, JC Ramesh wrote, dismissing the arguments of lawyers for Pte Lee’s family.
Mr Irving Choh, who acted on behalf of Pte Lee’s family, had argued the detonation of six smoke grenades – as opposed to the regular two – was an act that was “extraneous” to the scope of the officers’ duties – simply because it constituted a breach of the TSR.
ENLISTMENT NOT A “CONTRACT”, BUT A “DISCHARGE OF DUTY” MANDATED BY LAW
Besides Captain Najib and Major Chia, Pte Lee’s family also named the Attorney-General (AG) as a defendant in the suit. They claimed the AG had breached a contract under the Enlistment Act but JC Ramesh rejected this as well.
“There is no freedom in the formation of the relationship which one would see as a necessary ingredient in the formation of the consensual relationship that is a contract”, the JC wrote.
The enlistment of a serviceman is an act done as “a discharge of duty imposed on him” by the law, explained the JC. “Therefore, (Pte Lee’s family) could not sue the AG for breach of contract.”
Pte Lee died on Apr 17, 2012, after experiencing difficulty breathing following the detonation of six smoke grenades during an exercise.
He collapsed and lost consciousness, and was pronounced dead the same day. A Coroner’s Inquiry found Pte Lee’s cause of death was acute allergic reaction due to the inhalation of zinc chloride fumes released from the smoke grenades.
JC Ramesh ordered Pte Lee’s family to pay the legal costs of the AG (acting on behalf of the SAF) and the two officers, however this was later waived by the Ministry of Defence and lawyers for Captain Najib and Major Chia. No criminal charges have been brought against the officers involved, but the Ministry of Defence has said they have been dealt with, under military law.