Woman who fell into open manhole sues PUB for $5 million, citing lasting injuries

Chan Hui Peng fell into a manhole in in Kovan in 2015. (PHOTO: Legal Standard LLP)
Chan Hui Peng fell into a manhole in in Kovan in 2015. (PHOTO: Legal Standard LLP)

SINGAPORE — A woman who fell through an open manhole in December 2015 took the Public Utilities Board (PUB) to court on Monday (23 November), seeking some $5 million for physical and psychiatric injuries allegedly resulting from the incident.

In court documents, Chan Hui Peng, 47, sought damages which took into her account her pain and suffering, the loss of future earnings after the incident and costs of future medical and transport expenses, as well as the costs of a future domestic helper.

While PUB has accepted 70 per cent liability for the accident, the cost of expenses to be incurred by Chan is disputed.

In her affidavit, Chan submitted a public accounting firm report which valued her losses and expenses at $20 million. However, her lawyers Letchamanan Devadson and Ivan Lee of Legal Standard LLP, said their client would not be relying on that report, which was obtained at the instruction of Chan’s previous counsel.

According to her psychiatric reports, Chan was diagnosed with schizophrenia between last year and this year. She also has major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, post-traumatic headache, and stress incontinence allegedly arising from the incident.

She reportedly believed that her husband was possessed by evil spirits, her house was bugged and there were people spying on her.

The day of the incident

Chan said that on 1 December 2015, just after 10am, she exited Kovan MRT Station and headed to Simon Road to collect her order of bird’s nest. On her way, she encountered a three PUB officers who were conversing, with an open manhole nearby shrouded in shadow cast in part by a tree with dense foliage.

The glaring sunlight, which made the shadows darker, meant Chan did not see the manhole, which had been open for a site inspection.

Nothing in the PUB officers’ demeanour warned her of the upcoming danger, Chan said. She said she indicated to two officers she wanted to pass through but they simply continued their conversation. Another frantic wave also failed to get a response.

As Chan approached the PUB officers and reached out her arm, she plunged into the manhole and grabbed onto the ground. None of the officers reached out to her and she fell, she alleged.

Chan sustained a fracture near her ankle, as well as bruises and abrasions. However, she argued that the accident caused her to suffer from PTSD and schizophrenia. This was worsened by her court case and by the knowledge of being watched, her lawyers contended.

After being discharged from the hospital, she found herself fearful of climbing high steps and developing a phobia of walking into holes. She would have nightmares of plunging through the darkness and awake in a cold sweat.

In 2017, she experienced an onslaught of panic and anxiety that meant she feared stepping outdoors.

Although employed at HP&S International as a senior consultant for a month at the time of the accident, she was not able to work after the incident, her lawyers said. Chan claimed she was earning a monthly salary of $11,500 then. She remains on no-pay leave.

‘Capitalising’ on her injuries: Defendant

PUB’s lawyers, K Anparasan, Grace Tan and Shanen Nanoo of WhiteFern LLC said that the three officers were carrying out an inspection of the manhole when Chan “attempted to barge through” the officers instead of walking around them. This was when she fell through the open manhole.

“(Chan) has made a mountain out of a molehill and has seized the opportunity to capitalise on the injuries she allegedly sustained because of the accident,” said the lawyers, who will also argue that Chan was dishonest in formulating her claims.

Chan’s fracture was treated conservatively, and she has since recovered with little to no residual disabilities, said the lawyers.

Chan also had the “proclivity to obtain and amend medical evidence to her satisfaction”, said PUB’s lawyers, pointing out that Chan had pressured a specialist to amend a medical report.

“It is most regrettable that Chan Hui Peng has not come to court with clean hands and has concocted evidence with a hope of obtaining a windfall,” said the defendant.

Cross examining Chan on Monday, Anparasan questioned why Chan had not come clean about HP&S being a family business as she had allegedly omitted the detail in her statement of claim.

Chan replied that her lawyer had not told her it was necessary. “I didn’t think it necessary, at no point did my lawyer say that if family related things are accounted differently,” she said.

Chan then said that her husband had spoken to her about her position at HP&S and she subsequently pegged her salary at $11,500, as it was her market rate and she had been paid the same amount for her previous job at e-commerce platform Lazada.

However, PUB’s lawyer then pointed out that Chan had signed off on her own cheque.

She replied, “Cause (my husband) gave me cheque to sign off, my husband gave me a cheque to sign off, he holds custody of chequebook.”

The lawyer then argued that Chan was not working at the material time and was only creating an income in order to launch a claim for her pre-trial earnings. Chan disagreed.

The trial will continue on Tuesday, with an expert witness expected to testify as to Chan’s injury.

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