The recent High Court case of Ng Kum Thong v Moktar Bin Yusof [2012] SGHC 254 has brought into question how many years one can realistically expect to work for in Singapore.

It is not uncommon for people to work longer than the statutorily stipulated retirement age of 62. However, when our courts are required to determine the loss of future earnings of an injured plaintiff through the ascertainment of the remainder of the plaintiff’s working life, how far should and can our courts deviate from the statutorily stipulated age of 62 when recognising the “real” retirement age of a person?

Mr. Ng Kum Thong, a 59 year old cleaning supervisor, lost both his legs in a traffic accident 5 years ago. He commenced legal action against the errant driver and was awarded S$459,806 in damages at first instance, of which S$158,400 was for loss of future earnings (a multiplier of 11 years).

The defendant appealed, contending that the sum awarded for loss of future earnings (amongst other sums awarded) was too high. The defendant argued that any loss of future earnings should have been calculated based on a retirement age of 62 or 63 instead.

On appeal, Justice Lee Seiu Kin varied parts of the earlier decision, but affirmed the award for loss of future earnings. Justice Lee opined that the damages awarded for loss of future earnings was not excessive and saw no reason why the plaintiff could not continue to work as a cleaning supervisor until the age of 75 years, since he was not required to exert himself physically, and that it would not have been hard for him to find work in this field. Consequently, the judge held that a multiplier of 11 years was appropriate.

Calculating the Loss of Future Earnings

Damages for loss of future earnings are awarded when the injured party is unable to return to his pre-accident employment and/or has to take on a lower paying job. The loss is calculated on a multiplier and multiplicand basis: (i) the multiplicand being the monthly loss in pay; and (ii) the multiplier being the appropriate period over which to compute the loss. The Court’s objective in fixing the multiplier is to arrive at an award that provides the plaintiff with full compensation to the closest extent possible.

To decide on an appropriate multiplier, the court will have to first decide on the length of the remainder of the plaintiff’s working life. When determining the retirement age, our courts have conventionally pegged it to the statutorily stipulated retirement age. Thereafter, the duration of the plaintiff’s working life will have be discounted to account for factors such as the plaintiff stopping work for reasons other than the accident.

Is ‘75’ the new ‘62’?

It is not unusual for our courts to fix multipliers representing plaintiffs working past the statutory retirement age. However, whether future cases will follow the 75 years benchmark in Ng Kum Thong remains to be seen, especially given the numerous variable factors to be considered in each personal injury case (e.g. the nature of the injury sustained, the claimant’s occupation).

In fact, the recent Court of Appeal case of Poh Huat Heng Corp Pte Ltd and other v Hafizul Islam Kofil Uddin [2012] 3 SLR 1003 warned against a ‘blind adherence to the multipliers in previous cases’ and further opined that the Court ‘should not hesitate to depart from the multipliers used in previous cases if the circumstances call for it’.

That being said, perhaps the decision in Ng Kum Thong signifies judicial acceptance of today’s longer working lifespan and older retirement age, and consequently bigger payouts for loss of future income due to larger multipliers. The case is being appealed to the Court of Appeal.