Court Of Appeal Orders High Court Trial For Sultanah Aminah Hospital Fire Negligence Lawsuits

The Court of Appeal has ordered three lawsuits over the deadly 2016 fire at Sultanah Aminah Hospital Johor Bahru to be tried at the High Court, saying it’s a public interest case and victims’ parents were not informed about the independent inquiry’s report.

KUALA LUMPUR, May 4 – The Court of Appeal yesterday overturned a High Court ruling that struck out three negligence lawsuits over the deadly 2016 fire at Sultanah Aminah Johor Bahru Hospital (HSAJB) that had killed six patients.

The appellate court, in a unanimous decision on appeals by the parents of three victims killed in the fire tragedy at the public hospital – Logeswaran Krishnasamy, Choo Lin Fong, and Kaliama Muniandy – ordered the suits to go to trial at the High Court.

The Edge reported Justice Lee Swee Seng – who headed the Court of Appeal bench that included judges Wong Kian Kheong and Mariana Yahya – as saying that the fire incident at HSAJB was a public interest case, and that the public had the right to know whether the government, as the defendant, was negligent.

Lee reportedly said this was not a “plain and obvious case for striking out” as there were issues that needed to proceed in trial, especially the issue of the victims’ parents not being informed about an independent committee’s investigation report on the deadly October 25, 2016 fire at the Ministry of Health (MOH) hospital in Johor.

The judge cited allegations that the government had made various representations urging victims’ parents to be patient and to not file suit until the conclusion of the report by the independent committee chaired by former Court of Appeal judge Mohd Hishamudin Yunus.

“The appellants (parents) as laymen took the representations by the defendant (the government) to be true, and relied on the representations made. It was only much later that they realised that the investigation report was completed, and they weren’t informed,” Lee was quoted saying.

“Whether or not it’s true, it’s a matter of trial, more so in a public interest case, because the public have the right to know the cause of the fire, and whether or not there was negligence on the part of the defendant (the government),” he said.

The Court of Appeal set aside the High Court order and remitted the trial to a different judge.

In February last year, the High Court struck out the three negligence suits on the basis that they were not filed within the three-year statute of limitations under the Public Authorities Protection Act 1948 on lawsuits or prosecution of individuals executing public duties.

The parents of Logeswaran, Choo, and Kaliama had filed suit in September 2020, more than three years after the October 2016 fire.

The High Court in Johor Bahru had also dismissed the plaintiffs’ application for discovery of documents that was said to be “redundant”.

Then-HSAJB director Dr Mohtar Pungut, in an affidavit-in-reply in all three cases filed on December 23, 2020, had refused to furnish the medical records and post-mortem reports on the plaintiffs’ children, besides claiming that the independent committee’s report was an official secret of the “highest-level classification”.

MOH refused to provide plaintiffs the independent committee’s report on the HSAJB fire, even though the ministry had declassified the report earlier on October 15, 2019, as per then-Health Minister Dr Adham Baba’s written parliamentary reply.

The independent committee handed its report to MOH in June 2018 under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration in which Dzulkefly Ahmad, who is currently Kuala Selangor MP, was the health minister.

But the report was never published by Dzulkefly or by his successors Dr Adham or Khairy Jamaluddin. Current Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa has yet to publish the report.

The parents of Logeswaran, Choo, and Kaliama said they had 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 2020 as the Movement Control Order (MCO) from March 18 to May 11 prevented them from obtaining legal counsel earlier.

The independent investigation’s report on the October 25, 2016 fire that broke out in the south intensive care unit (ICU) of HSAJB, as sighted by CodeBlue, concluded that one of the underlying causes that led to the deaths of the six patients was the lack of preparedness by hospital management and staff.

According to the inquiry, none of the south ICU staff had undergone training in fire drills or emergency evacuation despite four previous fire outbreaks in the ward, including one just 11 days before the fatal fire on October 25, 2016. HSAJB also did not have a fire certificate.

The independent committee’s report also revealed that Medivest Sdn Bhd, a support services company serving HSAJB, provided a fire extinguisher that malfunctioned during the deadly 2016 fire.

The top civil servants in office during the incident then – MOH secretary-general Chen Chaw Min and Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah – have since retired.

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