Government Sued For Negligence Over Johor Hospital Fire

Plaintiffs alleged defendants’ failure to ensure maintenance and repairs of facilities, electrical wiring, and electrical equipment in Sultanah Aminah Hospital, among others.

JOHOR BARU, Nov 29 – The family of a victim of the 2016 fire at Sultanah Aminah Johor Bahru Hospital (HSA) has filed a civil lawsuit against the public hospital and government, claiming negligence of patient safety.

Parents of the late 24-year-old Neeramaladevi Chandran — Chanthiran Palanisamy and Rajaswari Ramalingam — named the HSA director, Johor state health director, and the Malaysian government as defendants in their lawsuit that was filed at the Sessions Court here last October 24, three years after the fire at the Ministry of Health (MOH) hospital in Johor Baru on October 25, 2016, led to the deaths of Neeramaladevi and five other patients.

Their lawsuit came even as the Pakatan Harapan administration has yet to publish the report of an independent inquiry into the fire, over a year after the investigating committee handed its report to MOH in June 2018.

The current director of HSA is Dr Mohtar Pungut @ Ahmad, who took the post last October 22 from Dr Aman Rabu, as the latter was appointed the state health director of Johor on that day, replacing Dr Selahuddeen Abdul Aziz who retired from service.

“On October 25, 2016, while the deceased was receiving treatment at the intensive care unit (ICU) of Hospital Sultanah Aminah Johor Baru, she died in a fire at Hospital Sultanah Aminah Johor Baru.

“The fire occurred due to negligence and / or contributory negligence and neglect of the defendants in the management, operation, and maintenance of the safety of the facilities and building of Hospital Sultanah Aminah Johor Baru where the deceased was receiving treatment,” read the plaintiffs’ statement of claim as sighted by CodeBlue.

Neeramaladevi’s parents alleged that the HSA director, Johor state health director, and the government failed to ensure the care and safety of patients, especially the deceased, when she was admitted to HSA; of failing to ensure maintenance and to repair all facilities, electrical wiring and electrical equipment in the building; as well as failure to supervise workers and staff, especially those responsible for maintenance of the safety of the hospital.

Chanthiran and Rajaswari also accused the defendants of failing to identify the facility faults in the building structure and electrical wiring in HSA; of failing to provide adequate warning; failure to adhere to standard operating procedure (SOP) in the maintenance of the building; and of causing a situation that endangered patients’ lives and brought Neeramaladevi’s death.

Furthermore, the document mentioned that the defendants are alleged to have also failed to train HSA staff on handling stressful situations and on rescuing patients, especially Neeramaladevi; negligence and neglect in taking standard security measures; failure to conduct periodic examinations on the safety, facilities, electrical wiring, and the structure of the building; failure to use skills and efficiency as needed by a responsible person in the management and maintenance of HSA; and failure to take steps to repair faults on the facilities and the building of HSA, especially the building where Neeramaladevi was located.

Additional charges also included alleged failure to supply staff with appropriate experience; failure to create an appropriate and efficient evacuation plan to rescue patients, especially Neeramaladevi, during disasters like fires; failure to identify problems and failure to prevent a fire from happening at HSA; and failure to evacuate and rescue patients, especially Neeramaladevi, in the fire.

In addition to these charges, the state health director was accused of failing to provide an adequate number of staff with enough experience and/or proper medical equipment; failure to give proper supervision/training to staff to ensure they perform their duties in an efficient manner; as well as failure to investigate staff’s work reports to ensure proper safety procedures were taken in order to guarantee good service and patients’ safety at HSA, especially Neeramaladevi.

As for the government of Malaysia, apart from all the charges as mentioned above, Neeramaladevi’s parents alleged that the government has vicarious liability over the purported negligence of the HSA hospital director and the Johor state health director.

The statement of claim did not specify the exact amount demanded in the lawsuit, but Neeramaladevi’s family is asking for compensation on the loss of financial benefits as the 24-year-old was working in Singapore and financially supporting her family at the time of her death.

The total amount, which includes general and special compensation, is expected to be more than RM6,000 as the document specified RM6,000 as Neeramaladevi’s funeral expenses.

Special claim includes costs for police documents, post mortem documents, funeral as well as for the transportation of the hearse.

Additionally, the victim’s family is also demanding for 4 per cent annual interest on special claims from the date of the incident to the date of the writ filing, and 5 per cent annual interest from the date of the writ filing to the final case; costs; as well as any other compensation specified by the court.

The fire claimed the lives of five other patients, besides Neeramaladevi, who were admitted in the ICU in the south wing of HSA, namely K. Logeswaran, 20; Choo Lin Fung, 37; Tow Ah Wah, 60; Yusuf Hasan, 53; and M. Kaliama, 23.

The next hearing is scheduled on December 19 at 9am at the Civil Sessions Court here in front of Justice Mohd Zulhilmi Ibrahim. According to court documents as seen by CodeBlue, the plaintiffs are represented by law firm Maniam Nair & Co, and two case management sessions have been conducted so far on November 5 and November 26 respectively.

In March 2017, the then-Barisan Nasional government informed Parliament that the Health Ministry has carried out fire safety audits with the Fire and Rescue, and Public Works departments in 46 public hospitals more than 50 years old.

“Among several fire risks identified were ageing fire prevention systems, dilapidated electrical wiring and installation systems, the installation of medical gas systems which were not according to required standards, and other discoveries which needed engineering systems to be upgraded,” former deputy health minister Dr Hilmi Yahaya said to Parliament.

“A large number of the hospitals were fire hazards and in need of an overhaul, upgrade and repair to be carried out to ensure the hospitals are safe and did not affect its daily operations.”

An independent committee chaired by former Court of Appeal judge, Mohd Hishamudin Yunus, was appointed to investigate the fire. Hishamudin has made repeated calls for public disclosure of his committee’s investigation report which made 23 recommendations.

In a recent interview with CodeBlue, he reiterated the investigating committee’s calls for the inquiry report to be made public, adding that the independent committee’s report should be debated in a parliamentary select committee, possibly the human rights committee since Parliament does not have a committee overseeing health issues.

The G25 group of retired high-ranking civil servants previously said that the committee investigating the HSA fire had found serious weaknesses on budgetary allocations and operating procedures related to safety measures and administrative responsibility, besides breaches of various laws.

The pressure to make the report public seemed to have not been in waste as just last week, Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad announced that the Cabinet has decided to disclose the investigation, and MOH was now working on publishing the findings by the end of December.

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