Saturday, May 10, 2008

A significant contribution to law of torts

It has been the general perception that the law of torts is not as well developed in India as in the West. While there is some basis to this perception, there has been some very good judgments by the Supreme Court, especially since the mid-1980s, to reverse this. The judgment, delivered by Justices Sema and M.Katju, in the case of Union of India v. Prabhakaran Vijaya Kumar on May 5, is truly a landmark as it is for the first time the Railways have been asked to compensate the relatives of a victim who died by accidentally falling off from a moving train, while trying to board it.

The Judges said:

"It will not legally make any difference whether the deceased was actually inside the train when she fell down or whether she was only trying to get into the train when she fell down. Since the provision for compensation in the Railways Act is a beneficial piece of legislation, in our opinion, it should receive a liberal and wider interpretation and not a narrow and technical one. Hence in our opinion the latter of the abovementioned two interpretations i.e. the one which advances the object of the statute and serves its purpose should be preferred".

More significant is paragraph 40 of the Judgment which extends the principle of strict liability to public bodies. The Judges said:

" The decision in M.C. Mehta's case (supra) related to a concern working for private profit. However, in our opinion the same principle will also apply to statutory authorities (like the railways), public corporations or local bodies which may be social utility undertakings not working for private profit."

In paragraph 41, they continued:

"It is true that attempts to apply the principle of Rylands vs. Fletcher
(supra) against public bodies have not on the whole succeeded vide Administrative Law by P.P. Craig, 2nd Edn. p. 446, mainly because of the idea that a body which acts not for its own profit but for the benefit of the community should not be liable. However, in our opinion, this idea is based on a misconception. Strict liability has no element of moral censure. It is because such public bodies benefit the community that it is unfair to leave the result of a non-negligent accident to lie fortuitously on a particular individual rather than to spread it among the community generally."

UPDATE: In today's Indian express, Soli Sorabjee in his column, refers to this judgment as a fine example of judicial activism. But I am inclined to consider it more as a contribution to law of torts.
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