In JB Hospital Fire Lawsuits, Even Post-Mortems Are ‘Secret’

The government also tells three lawsuits filed over the deadly 2016 fire at Sultanah Aminah Hospital that the independent inquiry’s report on the disaster is an official secret of the highest-level classification.

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 7 — The Ministry of Health (MOH) denied the parents of three patients killed in a 2016 fire at Sultanah Aminah Johor Bahru Hospital (HSA) access to not just official investigations, but even their children’s post-mortem reports and medical records.

The parents of Logeswaran Krishnasamy (then aged 20), Choo Lin Fong (then aged 37), and Kaliama Muniandy (then aged 22) filed lawsuits in September 2020 at the High Court in Johor Baru, Johor, accusing the government of negligence that led to the October 25, 2016 fire disaster at the public hospital that killed their children, along with three other patients.

In their statement of claim, the parents of Logeswaran, Choo, and Kaliama complained that the defendants — the HSA director, the Johor state health director, the Health director-general, and the Malaysian government — failed to inform them about the cause of the fire despite multiple requests at HSA.

Instead, the plaintiffs claimed that they were simply told to await the findings of an independent committee appointed by the government to investigate the fatal 2016 fire.

Then, they discovered the outcome of the independent inquiry upon reading CodeBlue’s March 2020 articles about the committee’s report, prompting them to file lawsuits only in September last year as the Movement Control Order (MCO) from March 18 to May 11 prevented them from obtaining legal counsel earlier.

The plaintiffs requested in their lawsuits for their deceased children’s medical records, medical examination reports, and post-mortem reports, as well as reports on investigations by the Fire and Rescue Department, the police, and the independent inquiry headed by former Court of Appeal judge Mohd Hishamudin Yunus.

They also sought the names of the defendants in charge of administration, training, and safety at HSA on October 25, 2016; the names of the HSA director, the Johor state health director, and the Health director-general who were holding office in October 2016; and the names of the medical or technical officers working in the south intensive care unit (ICU) of HSA at the time of the fire between 7am and 9am on October 25, 2016.

However, HSA director Dr Mohtar Pungut, in an affidavit-in-reply in all three cases last December 23, refused to furnish the medical records and post-mortem reports on the plaintiffs’ children, besides withholding the names of hospital staff and MOH officials requested:

“As a precautionary step by the government/ hospital to maintain the secrecy of information of officers and staff, as well as patients; and to avoid the misuse of documents and information of officers and staff, as well as patients, by irresponsible quarters.”

He also claimed the defendants had no access to the Fire and Rescue Department and police investigation reports on the fire.

“The independent investigation report is a document of the highest-level classification and is secret under existing laws and regulations,” added Dr Mohtar, referring to the independent inquiry chaired by Hishamudin.

Dr Mohtar’s December 2020 reply in the lawsuits contradicts Health Minister Dr Adham Baba’s written parliamentary reply on August 13 last year to Johor Baru MP Akmal Nasir that said MOH had declassified the independent committee’s report on October 15, 2019, as “preparation to publish the findings of the report to the public”, after the Cabinet decided on October 2, 2019, for MOH to release the report.

Logeswaran’s father Krishnasamy Kuppusamy, who produced his affidavit in a translation from Tamil to Bahasa Malaysia, said he did not receive a response when he and his eldest child went to HSA a few times and requested hospital management details and investigation reports on the 2016 fire disaster.

“Around December 2019, I went again to HSA and was told that the investigation report still wasn’t complete,” he said in an October 21 supporting affidavit.

Krishnasamy added that he was unable to follow up with HSA after that because the MCO prevented him from travelling to Johor from his residence in Teluk Intan, Perak.

Choo’s father Heng Yong, who lives in Johor Baru, as well as Kaliama’s father Muniandy Kandasamy, who lives in Rompin, Negeri Sembilan, both similarly said in their supporting affidavits translated from Chinese and Tamil respectively that they too could not get details and investigation reports on the fire that killed their children when they visited HSA a few times.

Logeswaran had been admitted into the south ICU at HSA and put on ventilator support after he was involved in a road traffic accident. Kaliama had also been put on ventilator support in the south ICU when she sought treatment for fever. Lin Fong was similarly put on a ventilator in the ward. The three young adults perished in the fire that broke out in the south ICU of the MOH hospital at about 9am on October 25, 2016.

The plaintiffs accused the HSA director, the Johor state health director, the Health director-general, and the federal government of 25 acts of negligence; breaches of laws and regulations; and of creating an unsafe and dangerous situation that led to the deaths of their children.

Among the allegations were HSA’s failure to obtain a fire certificate; failure to ensure that ICU staff were trained in fire drills and emergency evacuation, despite four previous outbreaks in the same ward before the deadly October 25, 2016 blaze; violations of the Electricity Supply Act 1990, the Electricity Regulations 1994, and the Uniform Building By-Laws 1984/ 1986; and negligence in duty of care to patients.

In the three cases, the defendants denied all of the plaintiffs’ claims of negligence. They also maintained that the ICU staff in HSA always prioritised patient safety and that all officers and staff at the hospital were frequently trained to handle any possible emergency.

The HSA director, Johor state health director, Health director-general, and the government also claimed that maintenance and checks on the safety, facilities, electrical wiring, and building structure at HSA followed standards and procedures set by MOH, local authorities, and related agencies.

The defendants further maintained that HSA had prepared a quick, suitable, and efficient evacuation plan and that all rescue efforts were made in a quick, efficient, and optimum manner in accordance with standards and procedures.

In response to the plaintiffs’ allegations of failure to inform them about the cause of the fire and being told to await the results of the independent inquiry, the defendants denied the claims and pointed out that the lawsuits were filed beyond the three-year statute of limitations under the Public Authorities Protection Act 1948.

The victims’ parents said in their statements of claim that they could not be blamed for any delay in filing suit, as they accused the defendants of acting illegally by “withholding all information” about the fire “with the intention of preventing the plaintiffs from making a claim for damages as a result of the defendants’ negligence”.

The three cases, which will be heard jointly, are scheduled for hearing in the High Court on November 3. Zaman & Associates, based in Johor Baru, is representing the plaintiffs in all three cases.

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