PUTRAJAYA: Three negligence lawsuits filed by the parents of victims of a deadly 2016 fire at Sultanah Aminah Hospital in Johor Bahru will go to trial in the High Court.
This follows the government’s decision to withdraw its applications for leave to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s rejection of three applications to strike out the suits.
The leave application had raised three questions of law, including as to when the cause of action arose.
Following the withdrawal, a three-member Federal Court bench chaired by Chief Judge of Malaya Zabidin Diah today struck out the applications with no order to costs.
Earlier, Zabidin reminded senior federal counsel Zahilah Yusoff that the apex court does not grant leave in interlocutory matters. He said no leave would be granted even if a lower court made the wrong decision.
“Why don’t you go to the High Court and thrash the matter out at a trial, including as to when the cause of action arose,” said Zabidin, who sat with Justices Nallini Pathmanathan and Abu Bakar Jais.
The government had filed the striking out applications premised on a contention that the suits had been filed out of time.
Section 2(a) of the Public Authorities Protection Act 1948 (PAPA) makes it mandatory for civil actions to be filed within three years from the date of death.
In her submissions, Zahilah had contended that there was precedent to justify the granting of leave, citing a case of a widow who did not bring a suit over the death of her husband in police custody within the statutory period.
“However, in that case, the apex court did not provide written grounds,” she said.
In response, Bakar said the apex court was unable to rely on another ruling if no written judgment was available.
In any case, the judge said, the government could argue the point during the trial in the High Court, and any ruling made would be appealable.
Lawyer S Gunasegaran, appearing for the plaintiffs, said the government would not be prejudiced if the merits of the case were ventilated at a trial.
On May 3, the Court of Appeal overturned a High Court ruling striking out the negligence lawsuits and ordered the cases to go for trial.
In a unanimous decision on appeals brought by the parents of three patients who died in the fire – Logeswaran Krishnasamy, Choo Lin Fong and Kaliama Muniandy – the appellate court bench said the case was one of public interest, and the public has the right to know whether the government was negligent.
Justice Lee Swee Seng, who led the panel, also said the cases could not be struck out as there were issues that needed to be ventilated at a trial, especially as regards the authorities’ failure to inform the parents of a report by an independent investigative committee on the fire.
Lee said the issues should be tried because there were allegations that various representations had been made by the government urging the parents to be patient and not file any suits until the conclusion of the report.
The report was only released in 2020.
Six patients died in the fire, which broke out on Oct 25, 2016 at the hospital’s south intensive care unit ward.
According to a 225-page report produced by the committee led by former Court of Appeal judge Hishamudin Yunus, the hospital had operated for years without a fire certificate.
The report said the hospital’s entire management and the health ministry did not appear to take fire safety seriously, despite several incidents occurring since 2008.