Hong Kong’s High Court, which comprises the Court of Appeal and the Court of First Instance, in Admiralty. Photo: Warton Li
Henry Litton
Henry Litton

Hong Kong dentist’s 20-year struggle in court highlights government’s lack of compassion

  • Not only did dentist Yeung Lai-ping lose her livelihood to an injury sustained while working at a public hospital, her employer, the Department of Health, refused to admit wrongdoing for two decades
  • By repeatedly filing appeals, the government displayed a lack of both common sense and compassion

This is the story of a professional career ruined by a heartless work environment and of efforts by government agencies to deprive the victim of redress using black letter law.

Yeung Lai-ping (the plaintiff) qualified as a dentist when she was 23. She practised for about four-and-a-half years, then obtained a Master of Dental Surgery degree when she was 30.

In February 1997, she joined the Department of Health as a dental officer, and in the course of her practice performed a considerable number of surgical extractions. This involved the removal of bone and cutting of teeth, operating in an awkward position and with the use of some force. This inevitably caused strain on the wrist.

Wrist sprains can easily occur, as typists and tennis players well know. The symptoms are pain, numbness and swelling. Repeated overexertion might result in carpal tunnel syndrome and triangular fibrocartilage tear. These are very serious conditions.

In September 1998, the plaintiff was posted to work as a dental officer in the dental unit of North District Hospital, a newly opened hospital. The dental unit had only two dentists: the plaintiff and Dr Tsui Hing-chung, her supervisor.

In the years prior to working at the hospital, the plaintiff had no problem with surgical extractions. Her patients were well served by her exercise of skill in surgical extraction operations.

Her work schedule at the hospital was gruelling. Her appointment book was filled three months in advance. Between October 1998 to September 1999, she performed 710 extractions. By comparison, over the same period Dr Tsui did 479.

Such work over a period of 13 months resulted in her developing carpal tunnel syndrome and triangular fibrocartilege tear. This ended her career.

On September 2, 2002, the plaintiff issued a writ seeking damages against the government. It was not until 14 years later that the action was heard in court, in December 2016 and March 2017. Judgment was delivered in April 2019. The judge found that the department had failed to maintain a safe and healthy workplace and had breached its duty of care to the plaintiff. She was awarded substantial damages and costs.

The trial judge’s findings were clear. The plaintiff had first developed symptoms of strain in her right hand and wrist in mid-1999. From July, the plaintiff wore a hand splint and sought medical treatment. Her work schedule did not diminish. In October she took three weeks’ sick leave and returned to work with the symptoms only partially relieved.

Dr Tsui made no inquiry into her condition and put her back onto the same gruelling schedule. Things came to a head on October 30 (a Saturday) when she was given three surgical extractions to perform. During the third operation, she suffered excruciating pain in her right wrist and could not continue (to the distress of her patient, of course).

Dr Tsui was himself under pressure. The fault was in the system of the department which counted results only in numbers.

North District Hospital in Sheung Shui, Hong Kong. Photo: Roy Issa

Instead of taking responsibility for the harm done to the plaintiff, the Health Department launched an appeal. The Court of Appeal gave its judgment on March 8, 2021, comprehensively reviewing the trial judge’s findings and affirming his conclusion.

The department was still unsatisfied. On April 7, it sought leave from the Court of Appeal to take the matter to the Court of Final Appeal.

A year later, on May 20, 2022, the Court of Appeal gave its response: a 22-page document comprehensively disposing of the eight questions put forward for the Court of Final Appeal’s consideration. The application for leave to appeal was rejected in its entirety.

Beneath its dignified language, one can sense boiling outrage rightly felt by the Court of Appeal. The trial judge, three years earlier, had made clear findings of fact, putting an end to litigation which started in 2002. The fact that the department had grievously failed to discharge its duty of care to the plaintiff could hardly be in doubt. The Court of Appeal had affirmed those findings.

And yet the Health Department was not satisfied; it apparently wanted lawyers to engage in a point-scoring game to deprive the plaintiff of redress.

As a result, the plaintiff would face further delay and anxiety, and further legal costs. Having been responsible for damaging the plaintiff’s health, ending her dental career, the department cared not whether further proceedings might damage her mental health as well.

Hong Kong work deaths cry out for tougher penalties

The eight questions put to the Court of Appeal were farcical. The first question was a pure technical point which no modern judge would have for a moment entertained. The second question was this: “Whether factual findings on the nature of injury suffered by a plaintiff employee, and causation between such injury and the alleged breach of duty committed by the defendant employer, may be made by resorting to ‘common sense’ to fill a gap not covered by the medical evidence, when the medical experts have not been asked to give an opinion on those issues?”

Common sense indeed. What is singularly missing is common sense in the department’s whole approach – that, and compassion. The other six questions piled absurdity on absurdity and bear no examination.

The department had deployed the full weight of the Justice Department to bear on the plaintiff. Are 20 years in litigation not enough?

The secretary for health bears ultimate responsibility for the department. Is he aware of this outrage?

Henry Litton is a retired Court of Final Appeal judge and author of “Is the Hong Kong Judiciary Sleepwalking to 2047?”