27 September 2020

Rules of pleadings do not strictly apply to petition for motor vehicle accident claim because tribunal can also initiate suo motu proceeding whithout there being any pleading

Once the actual occurrence of the accident, has been established, then the Tribunal’s role would be to calculate the quantum of just compensation if the accident had taken place by reason of negligence of the driver of a motor vehicle.

    We have no hesitation in observing that such a hyper technical and trivial approach of the High Court cannot be sustained in a case for compensation under the Act, in connection with a motor vehicle accident resulting in the death of a family member. Recently, in Mangla Ram Vs. Oriental Insurance Company Limited and Ors., (to which one of us, Khanwilkar, J. was a party), this Court has restated the position as to the approach to be adopted in accident claim cases. In that case, the Court was dealing with a case of an accident between a motorcycle and a jeep, where the Tribunal had relied upon the FIR and charge­ sheet, as well as the accompanying statements of the complainant and witnesses, to opine that the police records confirmed the occurrence of an accident and also the identity of the offending jeep but the High Court had overturned that finding inter alia on the ground that the oral evidence supporting such a finding had been discarded by the Tribunal itself and that reliance solely on the document forming part of the police record was insufficient to arrive at such a finding. Disapproving that approach, this Court, after adverting to multitude of cases under the Act, noted as follows:

“22. The question is: Whether this approach of the High Court can be sustained in law? While dealing with a similar situation, this Court in Bimla Devi noted the defence of the driver and conductor of the bus which inter alia was to cast a doubt on the police record indicating that the person standing at the rear side of the bus, suffered head injury when the bus was being reversed without blowing any horn. This Court observed that while dealing with the claim petition in terms of Section 166 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, the Tribunal stricto sensu is not bound by the pleadings of the parties, its function is to determine the amount of fair compensation. In paras 11­15, the Court observed thus: (SCC pp. 533­34) 

“11. While dealing with a claim petition in terms of Section 166 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, a tribunal stricto sensu is not bound by the pleadings of the parties; its function being to determine the amount of fair compensation in the event an accident has taken place by reason of negligence of that driver of a motor vehicle. It is true that occurrence of an accident having regard to the provisions contained in Section 166 of the Act is a sine qua non for entertaining a claim petition but that would not mean that despite evidence to the effect that death of the claimant’s predecessor had taken place by reason of an accident caused by a motor vehicle, the same would be ignored only on the basis of a post­mortem report vis­à­vis the averments made in a claim petition.

12. The deceased was a constable. Death took place near a police station. The post­mortem report clearly suggests that the deceased died of a brain injury. The place of accident is not far from the police station. It is, therefore, difficult to believe the story of the driver of the bus that he slept in the bus and in the morning found a dead body wrapped in a blanket. If the death of the constable had taken place earlier, it is wholly unlikely that his dead body in a small town like Dharampur would remain undetected throughout the night particularly when it was lying at a bus­stand and near a police station. In such an event, the Court can presume that the police officers themselves should have taken possession of the dead body.

13. The learned Tribunal, in our opinion, has rightly proceeded on the basis that apparently there was absolutely no reason to falsely implicate Respondents 2 and 3. The claimant was not at the place of occurrence. She, therefore, might not be aware of the details as to how the accident took place but the fact that the first information report had been lodged in relation to an accident could not have been ignored.

14. Some discrepancies in the evidence of the claimant’s witnesses might have occurred but the core question before the Tribunal and consequently before the High Court was as to whether the bus in question was involved in the accident or not. For the purpose of determining the said issue, the Court was required to apply the principle underlying the burden of proof in terms of the provisions of Section 106 of the Evidence Act, 1872 as to whether a dead body wrapped in a blanket had been found at the spot at such an early hour, which was required to be proved by Respondents 2 and 3.

15. In a situation of this nature, the Tribunal has rightly taken a holistic view of the matter. It was necessary to be borne in mind that strict proof of an accident caused by a particular bus in a particular manner may not be possible to be done by the claimants. The claimants were merely to establish their case on the touchstone of preponderance of probability. The standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt could not have been applied. For the said purpose, the High Court should have taken into consideration the respective stories set forth by both the parties.” (emphasis supplied)

    The Court restated the legal position that the claimants were merely to establish their case on the touchstone of preponderance of probability and standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt cannot be applied by the Tribunal while dealing with the motor accident cases. Even in that case, the view taken by the High Court to reverse similar findings, recorded by the Tribunal was set aside.

23. Following the enunciation in Bimla Devi case, this Court in Parmeshwari v. Amir Chand noted that when filing of the complaint was not disputed, the decision of the Tribunal ought not to have been reversed by the High Court on the ground that nobody came from the office of the SSP to prove the complaint. The Court appreciated the testimony of the eyewitnesses in paras 12 & 13 and observed thus: (Parmeshwari case, SCC p. 638) 

“12. The other ground on which the High Court dismissed the case was by way of disbelieving the testimony of Umed Singh, PW 1. Such disbelief of the High Court is totally conjectural. Umed Singh is not related to the appellant but as a good citizen, Umed Singh extended his help to the appellant by helping her to reach the doctor’s chamber in order to ensure that an injured woman gets medical treatment. The evidence of Umed Singh cannot be disbelieved just because he did not file a complaint himself. We are constrained to repeat our observation that the total approach of the High Court, unfortunately, was not sensitised enough to appreciate the plight of the victim.

13. The other so­called reason in the High Court’s order was that as the claim petition was filed after four months of the accident, the same is “a device to grab money from the insurance company”. This finding in the absence of any material is certainly perverse. The High Court appears to be not cognizant of the principle that in a road accident claim, the strict principles of proof in a criminal case are not attracted. …”

24. It will be useful to advert to the dictum in N.K.V. Bros. (P) Ltd. v. M. Karumai Ammal8, wherein it was contended by the vehicle owner that the criminal case in relation to the accident had ended in acquittal and for which reason the claim under the Motor Vehicles Act ought to be rejected. This Court negatived the said argument by observing that the nature of proof required to establish culpable rashness, punishable under IPC, is more stringent than negligence sufficient under the law of tort to create liability. The observation made in para 3 of the judgment would throw some light as to what should be the approach of the Tribunal in motor accident cases. The same reads thus: (SCC pp. 458­59) 

“3. Road accidents are one of the top killers in our country, specially when truck and bus drivers operate nocturnally. This proverbial recklessness often persuades the courts, as has been observed by us earlier in other cases, to draw an initial presumption in several cases based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Accidents Tribunals must take special care to see that innocent victims do not suffer and drivers and owners do not escape liability merely because of some doubt here or some obscurity there. Save in plain cases, culpability must be inferred from the circumstances where it is fairly reasonable. The court should not succumb to niceties, technicalities and mystic maybes. We are emphasising this aspect because we are often distressed by transport operators getting away with it thanks to judicial laxity, despite the fact that they do not exercise sufficient disciplinary control over the drivers in the matter of careful driving. The heavy economic impact of culpable driving of public transport must bring owner and driver to their responsibility to their neighbour. Indeed, the State must seriously consider no fault liability by legislation. A second aspect which pains us is the inadequacy of the compensation or undue parsimony practised by tribunals. We must remember that judicial tribunals are State organs and Article 41 of the Constitution lays the jurisprudential foundation for State relief against accidental disablement of citizens. There is no justification for niggardliness in compensation. A third factor which is harrowing is the enormous delay in disposal of accident cases resulting in compensation, even if awarded, being postponed by several years. The States must appoint sufficient number of tribunals and the High Courts should insist upon quick disposals so that the trauma and tragedy already sustained may not be magnified by the injustice of delayed justice. Many States are unjustly indifferent in this regard.”

25. In Dulcina Fernandes9, this Court examined similar situation where the evidence of claimant’s eyewitness was discarded by the Tribunal and that the respondent in that case was acquitted in the criminal case concerning the accident. This Court, however, opined that it cannot be overlooked that upon investigation of the case registered against the respondent, prima facie, materials showing negligence were found to put him on trial. The Court restated the settled principle that the evidence of the claimants ought to be examined by the Tribunal on the touchstone of preponderance of probability and certainly the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt could not have been applied as noted in Bimla Devi. In paras 8 & 9 of the reported decision, the dictum in United India Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Shila Datta10, has been adverted to as under: (Dulcina Fernandes case, SCC p. 650)

“8. In United India Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Shila Datta while considering the nature of a claim petition under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 a three Judge Bench of this Court has culled out certain propositions of which Propositions (ii), (v) and (vi) would be relevant to the facts of the present case and, therefore, may be extracted hereinbelow: (SCC p. 518, para 10) 

Rules of pleadings do not strictly apply to petition for motor vehicle accident claim because tribunal can also initiate suo motu proceeding whithout there being any pleading

‘10. (ii) The rules of the pleadings do not strictly apply as the claimant is required to make an application in a form prescribed under the Act. In fact, there is no pleading where the proceedings are suo motu initiated by the Tribunal.

* * *

(v) Though the Tribunal adjudicates on a claim and determines the compensation, it does not do so as in an adversarial litigation. …

(vi) The Tribunal is required to follow such summary procedure as it thinks fit. It may choose one or more persons possessing special knowledge of and matters relevant to inquiry, to assist it in holding the enquiry.’

9. The following further observation available in para 10 of the Report would require specific note: (Shila Datta case, SCC p. 519) ‘10. … We have referred to the aforesaid provisions to show that an award by the Tribunal cannot be seen as an adversarial adjudication between the litigating parties to a dispute, but a statutory determination of compensation on the occurrence of an accident, after due enquiry, in accordance with the statute.’”

    In para 10 of Dulcina Fernandes, the Court opined that non­examination of witness per se cannot be treated as fatal to the claim set up before the Tribunal. In other words, the approach of the Tribunal should be holistic analysis of the entire pleadings and evidence by applying the principles of preponderance of probability.”

    It is thus well settled that in motor accident claim cases, once the foundational fact, namely, the actual occurrence of the accident, has been established, then the Tribunal’s role would be to calculate the quantum of just compensation if the accident had taken place by reason of negligence of the driver of a motor vehicle and, while doing so, the Tribunal would not be strictly bound by the pleadings of the parties. Notably, while deciding cases arising out of motor vehicle accidents, the standard of proof to be borne in mind must be of preponderance of probability and not the strict standard of proof beyond all reasonable doubt which is followed in criminal cases.[Para No.20]

Supreme Court of India

Rajasthan State Road Transport Corporation

(2019) AIR(SC) 994
(2019) AllSCR 911

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