Sunday, 24 September 2023

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Unraveling the pitfalls of road touting: A Singaporean’s three-year nightmare

by Daniel Tan

Much has been discussed concerning road tout and the potential danger of having non-lawyers “helping” accident victims in recent months.

In December 2022, Channel News Asia did a piece on the issue, and a quick Google search revealed another piece by lawyer Mr Michael Han Hean Juan to the Strait Times forum the same month, with Mr Melvin Yong Yik Chye representing Radin Mas, President of the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) raising questions on it in the Parliament weeks later.

While these help to raise awareness, it should not be a matter of buyer beware and clearer preventative steps could be taken to better protect consumers.

In 2019, I was driving my parents out for dinner when a car exited the car park without ensuring it was safe to do so, hitting us on our left and narrowly missed getting hit by a bus which was parallel and travelling alongside us on our left.

While waiting for the traffic police, injured and worried about my parents, I was persuaded by the seemingly apologetic driver to go to his workshop where they would settle everything for me, and I do not have to come out with a single cent plus get compensation.

While I followed the procedure of informing my insurer and the police, despite driving for more than a decade, I hardly knew what else I needed to watch out for, with these warning pieces hardly conclusive or exhaustive enough to warn us of our rights and especially of other procedures after.

In 2019, the Strait Times covered a story about Mr Lawrence Lim, whose bid to pursue a personal injury claim stemming from a 2011 accident was rejected by a car insurer. The insurer pointed out that Mr Lim had signed a discharge voucher, thereby releasing them from any further liability.

In his case, Mr Lim claimed that he had made a mistake in assuming that the discharge voucher he signed was meant to settle only the damage to his vehicle, not his personal injury claim.

However, in my case, the discharge voucher was fraudulently signed without my knowledge.

The workshop claimed some parts can only be fixed after the case has been settled. But after months of not hearing from the workshop on the missing and faulty parts, the workshop then informed me, when pressed, that they have still not found a lawyer.

I informed them I would find my own as, by that point in time, I had grown cautious because of other claims they had made, such as the engine are not covered by insurance and I would have to pay cash out of my own pocket.

Despite speaking to me threateningly and claiming that they would lose money if I found my own – I insisted. However, when my lawyer reached out to the same insurer as Mr Lim’s case, it refused to communicate with him, saying someone was representing me.

I then tried reaching out to the insurer to inform them that this is my only lawyer but the insurer refused to speak to the accident victims leaving us in a catch-22 for about a year before having to resort to writing to the CEO of the insurer and being able to get my lawyer in.

That is when we discovered someone else had been representing me unknowingly to my lawyer and myself, and even presented a “signed” discharged voucher directly to the workshop instead of his “client” first. The insurer – whether is it for accident or life insurance – ought to have a copy of how my signature looked.

A simple and clear-cut accident where the offending driver admitted to all liability on the spot and was charged by the traffic police, from one year, became a three years nightmare when they still oddly brought up the fraudulently signed discharge voucher, in their negotiation with my lawyer, when trying to press down the already ridiculously low offer.

My attempt to report the incident of the fraudulently signed discharge voucher to the General Insurance Association of Singapore (GIA)’s fraud reporting hotline proved unhelpful, as I was met with a dismissive response suggesting they don’t deal with hearsay.

While I could not have the full cooperation of the insurer till today – another reason why relevant bodies could be more proactive instead of pushing the burden of proof to us – the insurer did, upon request, recently send me some correspondents that sound eerily like Mr Lim’s in some manner.

A “lawyer” of unknown origin and dubious representation, wrote to the insurer stating that I agreed not to claim for injuries. This was in spite of the fact that I had been referred to a doctor by the workshop, which specifically asked me to see a specialist.

Additionally, the workshop had promised compensation for my parents and me if I agreed to use their services. In a situation like this, an accident victim’s representative typically needs to draft a statement to the insurer before a discharge voucher can be prepared for individuals like Mr Lim or myself to sign.

The correspondence, clearly against my interest, also seemed to be sent after the workshop informed me they could not find a lawyer, and I had informed them I would find my own.

This is a possible reason why the insurer thus refused to speak to my rightful lawyer, suggesting we were allowed to be divided and conquered with the execution well orchestrated beyond just arising from touting alone.

And unlike lawyers that have to put their client’s interests first, and also help them understand what they are agreeing to or signing, workshops don’t. Allowing the workshops to find a lawyer on our behalf clearly seems to be something that can go side way too.

Currently, I am facing a lawsuit from the workshop demanding payment based on a fraudulently signed discharge voucher, despite them not completing their job to this day.

This situation suggests that workshops, seemingly more familiar with the current and seemingly flawed process than any reasonable driver, are able to brazenly exploit it to their advantage, especially against those unfortunate enough to have been involved in an accident.

Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, in his response to Mr Melvin Yong about road touting cases in Singapore, said that “the figures may not represent the extent of road touting, as motorists may refer the matter to their insurers or settle it privately. ”

To reach an insurer that has no incentive not to accept a rushed or even faulty negotiation – one has to wonder just how bold and commonplace these events can be since a decade ago. And with consumers still not knowing exactly how it should be – and just how many even know they might have been shortchanged even to report it?

There is so much onus of proof on the complainant to get GIA which has all the incentive to investigate and keep fraud low.

If my life insurer, like the offending driver’s general insurer, can take instructions from some random 3rd party without my knowledge and accept any signature, I wonder if there could be other things at risk here too.

Having to visit a specific doctor and the workshop eager to find a lawyer or “lose money” was something that I didn’t think much about then. After all, I was being “helped”.

Though I cannot help but wonder now, just how elaborate and how many parties are actually involved, with an accident victim just sitting on the roadside all by himself.

Consumers shouldn’t need to be trained like a lawyer to avoid these pitfalls or know who they can or cannot trust.

A re-examination of the claim process and if there is any conflict of interest seems required whether it was solicited on the public road or not, to better safeguard all road users.

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