In what is believed to be the first case of a private suit for wrongful imprisonment brought against a company here in Singapore, the High Court found Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) guilty of the charge against 43-year old Goel Adesh Kumar.
Judge Choo Han Teck found RWS liable for illegally detaining Mr Goel, a “high roller”, following an altercation the latter had with fellow gamblers in the early hours of 22 April, 2012.
Justice Choo, in his judgement, laid out the limits of a casino’s powers of detention under the Casino Control Act (CCA).
“The casino has not proven that it has any lawful basis to detain (him),” the judge said. “Although casino operators in Singapore are required… to take ‘all appropriate steps’ to ensure that patrons are not ‘drunk, disorderly or riotous’, this section (of the Act) does not confer a legal basis or power on the casino to detain its patrons.”
The incident in April 2012 resulted from a dispute Mr Goel had had with a couple who were gambling at the same table as him at RWS.
The couple were Mr Tan Chee Kheng and Miss Loi You Phing.
At about 4.25am, Mr Tan mistakenly took a chip that belonged to Mr Goel.
According to court documents, that resulted in an altercation between the two men.
From the camera footage from the CCTV (which had no audio recording), Mr Tan appeared agitated. The CCTV footage shows a standing Mr Tan gesticulating at a seated Mr Goel. Neither Mr Tan nor Miss Loi was called to testify at trial, but Ms Bridget Zhu, the shift manager of the casino, testified in her evidence-in-chief that Mr Tan was angry because Mr Goel kept calling him a cheat.
The three persons involved in the altercation were then separated by casino staff, with the couple being escorted away “to a sofa where they had some refreshments.”
Mr Goel continued gambling.
Later, the dispute resumed and the staff had to once again separate the three. Mr Goel was then eventually led to a side room, apparently so that he could cool down, at about 4.55am.
There were about four security personnel in the room with Mr Goel.
According to Judge Choo, at about 5.03am, Mr Goel wanted to leave the room but was prevented from doing so.
“Mr Goel became visibly agitated,” the jduge’s grounds of decision said. “For the next hour and 20 minutes until 6.25am, Mr Goel did not leave the room. In the intervening period, Mr Goel made several attempts to leave the room but was repeatedly stopped by the security officers..”
Mr Goel’s attempts to leave the room had also resulted in scuffles with the security officers, with Mr Goel being manhandled in the process.
Justice Choo described it:
“The next round of scuffles took place from 5.33am to 5.48am. They involved Mr Goel, Mr Adi, Mr Anuar and Mr Mahmud. At 5.34am, the CCTV footage shows Mr Goel being restrained by Mr Mahmud, and Mr Adi and Mr Anuar grabbing hold of his left and right arm respectively. The situation became more chaotic when Mr Goel again tried to force his way to the door.
“The scuffles between them resulted in Mr Goel being pushed against the wall on two occasions, once at 5.35am and again at 5.39am. Mr Goel proceeded to shift the furniture in the room in what appeared like an attempt to create a barricade around him. Peculiarly, Mr Goel was seen to be lying on the ground for a few seconds at 5.43am. The parties put forward different accounts for this act.
“Mr Vergis submits that Mr Goel was by that time resigned to his fate and laid “defencelessly on the floor” ready to receive a beating. On the other hand, counsel for the Casino, Mr N. Sreenivasan, SC, argues that it was a provocative and vulgar act by Mr Goel.”
On a few occasions, Mr Goel was seen to be speaking to the CCTV cameras, as though appealing for help from, or seeking the attention of, the security staff watching the live footage.
“It was undisputed that at 5.25am and again at 5.43am, Mr Goel called the police using his mobile phone in the presence of Mr Mahmud [a casino staff],” Judge Choo said.
Two police officers finally arrived in response to Mr Goel’s calls at 5.49am.
Mr Goel left the room at 6.25am accompanied by the police officers.
He sued RWS in May 2013 for false imprisonment, assault and battery, and for loss of income and “for vicarious liability for the tortious acts of its security personnel and for negligence in failing to keep him safe and secure while within its premises.”
He also sought aggravated damages.
The casino, in turn, brought in SATS, the company which provided the security staff to the casino, as a third party to seek an indemnity or contribution against it for any damages that the casino may be liable for in the suit.
In his decision which was issued on Thursday, Justice Choo said:
“The Casino has not proven that it has any lawful basis to detain Mr Goel. Although casino operators in Singapore are required under s 129(1)(c) of the Casino Control Act (Cap 33A, 2007 Rev Ed) to “take all appropriate steps” to ensure that patrons are not “drunken, disorderly or riotous”, this section does not confer a legal basis or power on the Casino to detain its patrons.”
The judge added:
“In the absence of any lawful basis for the detention, I find that Mr Goel was falsely imprisoned for a total of 46 minutes from 5.03am to 5.49am.”
As for Mr Goel’s claims of assault and battery inflicted on him by the security officers, Justice Choo agreed that “the actions of the security officers amounted to acts of battery.”
“The acts of holding him back, grabbing his arms and the scuffles that resulted in him being hit against the wall are not conduct that are ordinarily acceptable in daily life,” the judge said. “In my view, the security officers cannot be said to have acted with lawful excuse.”
Justice Choo added, “Even if it is arguable that Mr Goel showed signs of violence or aggression towards Mr Mahmud at the end of the period of detention, this was occasioned by the security officers’ repeated refusal to let him leave. Mr Goel may have been rude or even vulgar to the various security officers, but it does not appear that he intended to be violent or physically abusive towards any of them.”
Accordingly, the judge awarded Mr Goel S$4,000 in damages after considering various factors of his wrongful detention, which include him being “detained in a comfortable room intended for patrons of the Casino, and also that his detention was for less than 50 minutes.”
As for Mr Goel’s claims that his being manhandled by the security officers had resulted in various injuries, such as a fracture to his right shoulder, a labral tear, a rotator cuff injury as well as a ‘frozen shoulder’, Justice Choo said – after hearing expert testimonies – that some of these were pre-existing conditions which Mr Goel had.
The judge accepted, however, that Mr Goel had sustained a fracture to his right shoulder – a “fairly serious injury” – as a result of the incident at the casino.
He awarded the plaintiff $25,000 for pain, suffering and loss of amenities.
The judge also granted Mr Goel $16,000 for pre-trial medical expenses, and pre-trial transport expenses of $925.
Mr Goel’s claims of aggravated damages, however, were rejected by the judge.
“I decline to award aggravated damages,” Justice Choo said. “Neither the casino nor Mr Goel was particularly cordial or cooperative with each other during pre-trial proceedings, which resulted in numerous interlocutory battles between them. But this is not uncommon between parties in litigation. I am also not satisfied that the conduct of the casino officers during the material incident was so wrongful as to warrant an award of aggravated damages.”