SINGAPORE: A long-running dispute between neighbours in a Housing Board block over smoking in a flat and retaliatory acts of throwing rubbish on the smoker’s air-conditioning ledge led to both sets of neighbours going to court.
The smoker, Ms Pua Siew Yok, sued the couple who lived directly above her – Mr Ng Kok Hwee and Mdm Chua Kim Choo, for trespassing on her flat and private nuisance. She sought damages of S$60,000 (US$44,600).
The couple counterclaimed for trespass and private nuisance over Ms Pua’s smoking that led to the smoke going into their property, as well as her installation of a closed circuit television (CCTV) camera.
In a judgment made available on Thursday (Aug 3), a magistrate’s court awarded Ms Pua a total of S$17,000 in damages for some of her claims and dismissed her neighbours’ counterclaims.
The court also granted an injunction restraining Ms Pua’s neighbours from throwing objects or liquids onto any part of Ms Pua’s property.
Ms Pua lives in a flat on the 15th floor in north-eastern Singapore. Her neighbours, Mr Ng and Madam Chua, live directly above her.
The neighbours were unhappy because of the cigarette smoke that would waft up into their flat from the smoking by Ms Pua and her male companion.
According to Ms Pua, the couple retaliated by throwing liquids, wet food and “guazi” or baked watermelon seeds on her air-con ledge and kitchen window, throwing wet food at her front gate, and hanging bedsheets and plastic sheets from their unit such that it blocked hers.
In their defence, the couple suggested that someone else living higher up could have committed these acts.
They said any splashing or throwing of substances was inadvertent as they kept birds and plants in their balcony and cleaned the balcony or windows.
They also said they hung sheets around their unit to block the view of CCTV cameras Ms Pua installed to gather evidence, saying the prying lens caused them discomfort.
Ms Pua showed photos and videos that showed a stream of liquid being thrown from above, as well as cracked eggs, cooked rice and other food debris on her air-con ledge.
She also showed a photo of “guazi” seeds strewn across her air-con compressor, taken in November 2019, as well as a picture of her neighbours’ laundry hanging down to her window.
The judge said two videos played at trial clearly linked Mdm Chua to the acts – one such video shows a woman opening a window of the unit above Ms Pua’s, looking out, before closing it. After this, something is seen falling onto Ms Pua’s air-con ledge, which Ms Pua said was an egg.
At trial, Mdm Chua admitted she was the woman shown in the video.
The second video, taken in December 2020, showed a shadow of a mop being lowered from the 16th-floor flat and shaken towards Ms Pua’s flat.
Ms Pua said that the mop was filled with “guazi” seeds, sugar and other unknown substances, and was shaken so that the items fell onto her balcony and ledge.
Mdm Chua did not dispute that she was the one holding the mop, but claimed that she was just trying to clean dirt and “guazi” seeds on her own balcony ledge.
District Judge Jonathan Ng Pang Ern found that Mr Ng had nothing to do with the acts, focusing only on his wife, Mdm Chua.
He found that the evidence identified Mdm Chua as the perpetrator in most of the incidents and that Ms Pua’s claim in trespass was made out against her.
One exception was the hanging of laundry, which the judge found did not actually intrude into Ms Pua’s airspace and did not constitute an act of interference for the claim of trespass to be made out.
He granted an injunction restraining Mdm Chua from throwing objects or liquids onto any part of Ms Pua’s property.
He also granted her nominal damages of S$500 and aggravated damages of S$8,000, saying that Mdm Chua’s acts were “high-handed”, insulting and oppressive.
Ms Pua also claimed that her neighbours made banging and knocking noises and dragged furniture across the floor.
In the trial, she tendered 26 videos taken from January 2020 to August 2022 that showed the noises.
The neighbours accepted that some of the noises were caused by Mdm Chua’s dragging of furniture.
However, they said Ms Pua’s version of events was exaggerated, saying Mdm Chua was relatively old and inactive and that shifting furniture continuously would damage her floor.
Mdm Chua and her husband also tried to attribute the noises to renovations by other neighbours, but the judge noted that the HDB notices of renovation pertaining to these neighbours were not for periods when the videos were taken.
Judge Ng found that Mdm Chua was not a credible witness and had “something to hide”, changing her story as she went along.
Although he found that Ms Pua’s claim for private nuisance over the noise was made out, she did not produce any evidence of damage she suffered.
So he awarded nominal damages of S$500 for this and aggravated damages of S$8,000 as Mdm Chua had “embarked on a campaign of harassing behaviour” towards Ms Pua.
Ms Pua had asked for an injunction restraining her neighbours from “causing excessive noise and vibration” to her property or creating any similar nuisance, but Judge Ng said the terms used were ill-defined and asked for further submissions on a workable injunction.
The judge dismissed the neighbours’ counterclaim that Ms Pua and her male companion’s smoking trespassed into their property.
He said the neighbours had failed to establish that the smoking was an act of direct interference with their property. Instead of making a trespass claim, nuisance would be a more appropriate action, he said.
For the counterclaim in private nuisance to succeed, the neighbours had to prove several things, including that the smoking interfered with their use and enjoyment of their flat and that such an interference was unreasonable.
While Ms Pua’s neighbours had claimed that she and her male companion smoked at least twice daily, aggravating Mdm Chua’s asthma, the judge said there was no evidence to prove the smoking aggravated the asthma, or to show how long the smoking lasted in each session.
Judge Ng noted that Ms Pua had closed the sliding door of her balcony while she smoked there. This was a “purely selfish reason” as she did not want the smoke to go into her own property, said the judge.
He said that if he had found the twice-daily smoking sessions constituted a substantial interference, he would have found Ms Pua liable for her neighbours’ counterclaim in private nuisance over this particular incident. However, he did not make such a finding because there was no evidence that the smoking sessions lasted for a long time on each occasion.
The judge also dismissed the counterclaim over the neighbours’ loss of privacy over Ms Pua’s CCTV camera installations. He said the claims were “wildly exaggerated”, and that while it is not ordinary to install a CCTV camera facing another unit, in the context of this case it was critical to gather evidence.
He ordered both sides to file submissions on interest and costs.