Singaporeans rely almost exclusively on hawkers, food courts and restaurants for their meals. We put faith in these eating places and trust them to prepare our food safely. Yet there are occasions when lapses in food safety are found. The Ministry of Health revealed that the number of food poisoning cases in Singapore jumped by 40 per cent from January to October in 2018, compared to the corresponding period last year.
Food contamination can be fatal.
In 2009, two people died and more than 150 patrons fell ill from food served at Rojak Geylang Serai.
In 2014, a four-year-old boy died four days altering eating contaminated food from a Kopitiam foodcourt in Northpoint Shopping Centre.
In another 2014 case, a two-year-old girl was whisked to hospital after her mother noticed the girl having a seizure. It was reported that “The little girl’s eyes had rolled back and only the whites could be seen. She was not breathing and her skin was turning purple.” The family consumed food from a Chinese food stall in a Geylang coffeeshop.
More than 400 people have taken ill in November 2018 alone in three unrelated food poisoning cases, with one fatality.
When does food poisoning become a legal concern?
If you contributed to the contamination of your own food, for example if you consume takeaway food many hours after preparation, then you would generally have to accept some responsibility. Sometimes it can be just bad luck. If an eatery has done all in its power to reduce risk, it could then be discharged of fault.
What the law is concerned with, is negligence.
The National Environment Agency (soon to be reconstituted into the Singapore Food Agency from April 2019) regulates Singapore’s retail food industry and ensures that food sold is safe for consumption. Their standards are high. Every person in the business understands licensing requirements and is subject to mandatory food handling training and enforcement by officers.
Because of stringent requirements, everyone in the business has knowledge of their responsibilities and the foreseeable risks. They owe a duty of care to upkeep these responsibilities and to take steps to avoid risks. Being negligent in upholding this care may result in adverse claims against the eatery.
In law, negligence is a tort. A legal wrong suffered by one person by another whom had failed to take proper care against risk. There are various tests to ascertain negligence, but we generally look out for these points:
- A duty of care. The wrongdoer must owe the victim a duty of care. If a food vendor handles his ingredients in an unsafe manner, he could be breaching this duty of care.
- The harm done must be a factually foreseeable result of the wrongdoer’s (also known as the tortfeasor) conduct
- A relationship of proximity must exist. This can be further defined as:
- Physical proximity: The actual distance between a victim and the wrongdoer
- Circumstantial: The relationship between wrongdoer and victim. For example customer/vendor or employee/employer
- Causal: This refers to how closely related the negligent act has caused the harm done to the victim
- Liability imposed must be fair just and reasonable
The full set of legal tests, mechanisms and defences surrounding the tort of negligence is complex. If you find yourself a victim of negligent food poisoning, this is what you can do:
- Go to the doctor and get yourself treated. The Singapore medical system is networked and is able to detect multiple reports of food poisoning.
- Immediately note the circumstances. The date and time, name of the establishment, the food consumed etc. Provide these to your doctor. Evidence of poor hygiene, improper storage of perishable ingredients, presence of pests, improper attire and so on, may point to a breach of the duty of care and should be brought up to both your lawyer and doctor
- Report the matter to NEA. The authorities are in the best position to conduct investigations and queries to ascertain the source of contamination
- Do not go to social media and make unsubstantiated accusations. This act may open you to counter claims of defamation
If you feel that you have been a victim of negligent food poisoning, compensation may be available.
As far as the law is concerned, it tries to compensate somebody for their loss, said Jeremy Cheong in a radio interview with 93.8 Now.
There are limits however, especially when someone dies.
It is impossible to fully compensate someone who’s passed on, but the law will try to assign life-time earnings to this person. Earnings which would have been earned had he/she been alive, although we know this is cold comfort to the family. We do advise people on whether or not they can claim some sort of compensation and advice them on matters of evidence.
On the other hand, when eateries are affected, they are concerned about the fall-out of their reputation and we provide a different set of advice. (Businesses) are worried about defamation. However we discourage people from unnecessary litigation. But this is a matter of PR and marketing rather than legal action.
Listen to IRB lawyer Jeremy Cheong speak with 93.8 Now on the subject of food poisoning: