Widow who sued sister-in-law for calling her 'rotten' sought $4m in defamation suit, got $40,000

SINGAPORE – A widow who sued her husband’s sister for defaming her at her father-in-law’s wake and at the family’s car dealership, sought more than $4 million in damages but was awarded only $40,000.

Ms Lim Siew Ling, 48, had sued sister-in-law Neo Choon Sian, 57, for calling her a “rotten woman” and for accusing her of misappropriating money from the company, among other things.

She succeeded in some of her claims but failed in others.

On Monday (July 12), a High Court judge said the amount of damages sought by Ms Lim was “entirely overblown and out of all proportion compared to existing precedent”.

Ms Lim’s lawyer had argued for $100,000 in general damages, another $100,000 in aggravated damages, as well as $3.9 million in punitive damages.

Justice Mavis Chionh noted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was recently awarded $100,000 in general damages and $33,000 in aggravated damages in his defamation suit against financial adviser Leong Sze Hian.

The judge said public leaders – those in the Government as well as in the public and private sectors – are generally entitled to higher damages because of their standing in Singapore society and devotion to public service.

“The plaintiff cannot be described as a public leader, yet the quantum of damages argued for on her behalf exceeds the quantum of damages awarded to public leaders in many of the cases which have come before the court.”

The judge said aggravated damages was warranted.

This was shown by the fact that Ms Neo made defamatory remarks at her father’s wake, which should have been a solemn occasion, said the judge.

One of the individuals Ms Neo addressed at the wake was a bank manager whom she had never spoken to but was known to have had business dealings with Ms Lim.

The judge said Ms Neo’s dominant motive was to damage Ms Lim and there was evidence of malice on her part.

The present case appeared to be “another sad chapter in the saga of mutual grievance and acrimony as between two former sisters-in-law”, said the judge.

Ms Neo was sued over statements she made at her father’s wake in May 2018, and in the presence of staff at the office of Prime Cars Credit (PCC) in June 2018 and August 2018.

PCC was set up by Ms Lim’s husband Jacky Neo in 2006. After his death, she inherited his shares and ended up in a dispute with his two sisters, who were the other shareholders.

Ms Neo had described her as a “rotten woman” when she told a guest at the wake about Ms Lim’s relationship with a married man named Ng Boon Chong.

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Ms Lim alleged that Ms Neo’s words suggested that she “was an immoral woman who has many sexual partners”.

But Justice Chionh said Ms Neo was talking about Ms Lim’s relationship with a specific married man, which was substantially different from Ms Lim’s allegation.

The judge added Ms Neo’s words were justified, as Ms Lim had admitted in other court proceedings that Mr Ng was her boyfriend.

“It is true that she was in an extramarital relationship with Ng at the material time,” said the judge.

On the other hand, the judge said Ms Neo’s remarks to the same guest that Ms Lim had misappropriated large sums of money was “clearly defamatory”.

“The ordinary reasonable man… would have understood the first defendant to be suggesting or implying that the plaintiff had committed an offence that would carry serious punishment including imprisonment,” said the judge.

Justice Chionh awarded Ms Lim general damages of $25,000 and aggravated damages of $15,000.

Ms Lim had also named Ms Neo’s husband as a defendant but failed in her claim against him.

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