The Supreme Court passed a detailed judgment clarifying the law with respect to certain subjects which repeatedly arise in railway accident claims before Railway Claims Tribunal. What the Supreme Court ruled on Strict Liability and Burden of Proof!
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the railways would be liable to pay compensation to passengers in case of death or injury while boarding and de-boarding trains and said it cannot deny such claims citing negligence on the part of passengers.
A bench of Justices A K Goel and R F Nariman held that death or injury during boarding or de-boarding a train will be an ‘untoward incident’ entitling the victim to compensation.
As per Section 124A of the Railways Act, 1989, no compensation shall be payable by the railway administration if the passenger dies or suffers injury due to suicide or attempted suicide by him, self-inflicted injury, his own criminal act or any act committed by him in a state of intoxication or insanity.
Different high courts have given contradictory verdicts as some of them held that injury or death during boarding and de-boarding because of negligence of the victim was at par with self-inflicted injury. Some HCs though applied the principles of strict liability on the railways for such incidents.
Putting an end to the controversy, the apex court ruled that the railways is liable to pay compensation to victims as compensation is payable whether or not there has been wrongful act, neglect or fault on the part of the railway administration in case of an accident or untoward incident.
The court said the concept of ‘self-inflicted injury’ would require intention to inflict such injury and negligence on the part of passenger, which is one of the grounds to decline compensation, could not be brought within its ambit.
The judgment was delivered by a Bench of Justices AK Goel and Rohinton Fali Nariman in an appeal preferred against an award of compensation of Rs. 4 lakh under Section 124A of the Railways Act, 1989.
The respondent had filed a claim for compensation for death of her husband Jatan Gope in an ‘untoward incident’ in 2002. Her case was that the deceased had purchased a second class train ticket and he fell down from the train due to rush of passengers and died on the spot.
One Kailash Gope who witnessed the deceased purchasing the ticket and boarding the train filed an affidavit stating these facts. He was not cross-examined. The case of the respondent was that the ticket was not recovered from the possession of the deceased as it may have been lost somewhere.
The claim was contested by the Central government (appellant). It was stated that the deceased was not a passenger but was wandering near the railway track. Cousin of the deceased stated that the deceased was suffering from mental disorder and was wandering in that state of mind. However, he was not examined as a witness.
The Tribunal dismissed the claim on the ground that it was not a case of ‘untoward incident’ but a case of ‘run over’ and that the deceased was not a bona fide passenger.
The High Court set aside the order of the Tribunal by relying upon the evidence of Kailash Gope who had filed affidavit to the effect that the deceased had purchased ticket and had boarded the train. The Central government then preferred an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled on the following four issues:
Application of Principle of Strict Liability – Concept of Self Inflicted Injury
The Court made it amply clear that the principle of strict liability applies and held that Sections 124 and 124A provide that in the case of an accident or an ‘untoward incident’ compensation is payable whether or not there has been wrongful act, neglect or fault on the part of the railway administration.
Only exceptions are those provided in the proviso to Section 124A. Where principle of strict liability applies, proof of negligence is not required, the Court stated.
The Court therefore, held that death or injury in the course of boarding or de-boarding a train will be an ‘untoward incident’ entitling a victim to the compensation and will not fall under the proviso to Section 124A merely on the plea of negligence of the victim as a contributing factor.
Burden of proof when Body Found on Railway Premises
Addressing this issue, the Court noted that conflicting decisions have been pointed out on this subject.
The Court however, held that mere presence of a body in the Railway premises will not be conclusive to hold that the injured or deceased was a bona fide passenger for which claim for compensation could be maintained.
However, mere absence of ticket with such injured or deceased will not negative the claim that he was a bona fide passenger. Initial burden will be on the claimant which can be discharged by filing an affidavit of the relevant facts and burden will then shift on to the Railways and the issue can be decided on the facts shown or the attending circumstances. This will have to be dealt with from case to case on the basis of facts found, the Court held.
Quantum of compensation
The Court held that compensation will be payable as applicable on the date of the accident with interest as may be considered reasonable from time to time on the same pattern as in accident claim cases. If the amount so calculated is less than the amount prescribed as on the date of the award of the Tribunal, the claimant will be entitled to higher of the two amounts.
The Court in the process also explained the “seeming conflict in Rathi Menon and Kalandi Charan Sahoo” while holding that the 4-Judge Bench judgment in Pratap Narain Singh Deo holds the field on the subject.
“Compensation as applicable on the date of the accident has to be given with reasonable interest and to give effect to the mandate of beneficial legislation, if compensation as provided on the date of award of the Tribunal is higher than unrevised amount with interest, the higher of the two amounts has to be given.”
Rate of interest
Rate of interest has to be reasonable at par with accident claim cases.
“….though this Court in Thazhathe Purayil Sarabi (supra) held that rate of interest has to be at the rate of 6% from the date of application till the date of the award and 9% thereafter and 9% rate of interest was awarded from the date of application in Mohamadi (supra), rate of interest has to be reasonable rate at par with accident claim cases.”
The Court held that in the absence of any specific statutory provision, interest can be awarded from the date of accident itself when the liability of the Railways arises upto the date of payment, without any difference in the stages. Legal position in this regard is at par with the cases of accident claims under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.